Beyond Friendship - The Future of Anglo-American Relations, Chapter Six: Securing the Future

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Beyond Friendship - The Future of Anglo-American Relations, Chapter Six: Securing the Future

May 24, 2006 11 min read
Robin Harris
Dr. Robin Harris is Senior Visiting Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. His...

The contention of this book is that the Anglo–American Special Relationship makes sense. It brings benefits to both parties that no other arrangement with different powers could provide. No foreseeable changes—economic, social, or military—need call the Relationship into question as long as both parties nurture it and avoid entanglements that threaten it.

The three most important questions for the future, therefore, are: What can be done to rectify deficiencies exposed in recent years? What elements need to be strengthened? What new features should be created?

These three questions, in turn, can usefully be examined in the light of two more: What can the U.S. bring to the Relationship to make it more useful for Britain? What more can Britain contribute to help the United States?

American Action

America is and will remain the senior partner. Indeed, it is so much the senior partner that the notion of partnership does not entirely reflect reality. It follows from the fact that America is so powerful that it does not need to alter very much its accustomed ways of behavior, and needs to make at most only quite small sacrifices, in order significantly to enhance Britain’s position. The most obvious change would be to ensure that British governments, and thus British public opinion, are not taken entirely by surprise by unwelcome U.S. decisions.

In the end, what makes the Special Relationship special is trust. Trust does not guarantee that interests will never diverge or opinions differ, but it is the essential quality in continued cooperation—for example, in matters of intelligence. Britain should be trusted in other matters too, not just defense procurement (about which sufficient has been said), but also in the formulation of U.S. policy toward regions where it may at some time need British assistance. Britain cannot, of course, be allowed a veto; but British views, suggestions, and even objections should be taken seriously and in a more systematic fashion than through personal interventions by the U.K. Prime Minister, let alone through formal diplomatic representations.

For this to happen, however, America needs to establish clearly what it expects from the Special Relationship and how that arrangement should function in the service of U.S. global interests. No such clarity at present exists. Britain is essentially treated as an ally in wartime but just one of the other European powers when, as occasionally happens, peace breaks out. U.S. policy needs to grasp the fact that Britain is not, in any sense that matters, part of Europe, but rather a distinct entity with which the U.S. has a separate relationship that needs to be conducted according to separate rules.

This does not, of course, preclude the U.S. from having other one-to-one relationships with other powers, even other European ones. Heritage Foundation scholars have sensibly urged on the Bush Administration the need to adopt a pragmatic approach toward individual European states rather than try to do business with them through EU institutions.[1]> This would allow the U.S. to take advantage, for example, of Angela Merkel’s genuine warmth toward America, in contrast to her predecessor’s hostility. It would also allow the U.S. to achieve at least a private understanding with the French government on a range of interests, France being the most independent-minded of the EU countries, except for Britain.

The trouble is that progressive institutional integration in Europe will make all this more difficult. That is another reason, over and above the requirements of the U.K.–U.S. Special Relationship, for the U.S. to reverse its traditional posture and actively seek to discourage the formation of the European megastate—though the damage has largely been done.

The United States should also rethink its systematic approach to dealings with the British government of the day. It needs to rely less on personalities and to concern itself more with trends, structures, interests, and opinion. The weakness of a Special Relationship based on what passes for “friendship” between leaders has already been described, and it is well exemplified by the Bush–Blair contacts. Too much faith is placed in individuals, and too little attention is paid to whether other factors are in place to strengthen the alliance.

The U.S. needs to be more intelligently assertive. It should be keener to put a British Prime Minister on the spot if Britain has failed to pull its weight or has worked against American interests in some other forum. It should spell out exactly what resources it thinks should be committed to Britain’s defenses if the British are to serve alongside America effectively.

The U.S. also needs to be much more critical than it has been of Britain’s failure to clamp down on Islamic extremism within its borders. London has become derided as “Londonistan” and has retained that dubious distinction long after the French, so often (and rightly) in receipt of American brickbats, have cleared Paris of troublemakers and put in place arrangements to remove any new arrivals who might pose a danger. It has even been estimated that perhaps as many British citizens were fighting on the side of the Taliban as were fighting on the side of the Allies in Afghanistan. This signifies a deep social and cultural sickness. Neither the government nor the Conservative opposition has yet been seriously confronted by the U.S. with the overwhelming need to make Britain a redoubt against terrorism rather than a platform for it.

Similarly, the U.S. is too reticent about the broader trends which threaten the Special Relationship. This is partly because Americans do not want to be seen to interfere—though backhanded interventions do sometimes occur at election time—and partly because they take Britain for granted, albeit in the nicest possible way.

Britain is changing. The country has, since the 1980s, stood part way between the American and European economic models; but under Tony Blair, public expenditure, tax levels, and regulation have combined to shift Britain further away from the system of capitalism practiced with such success in the United States. Ironically, this is occurring at the same time as other European countries—notably those of Central–Eastern Europe, but also even France and Germany, which are cutting back on spending growth—are doing the opposite. The long-term effect of high spending, high taxes, and high regulation is to encourage protection, because businesses become less competitive. From being a force for open markets, Britain thus risks in the longer term being transformed into a force for trade hostility, which will sharpen political hostility, toward the U.S.

More subtle, but arguably even more important, is a divergence of values that is increasingly evident between British and American society. Of course, it does not do to oversimplify. There is not one single British society any more than there is a single American society. Culture wars exist on both sides of the Atlantic, though they are fought more openly—and by conservatives more successfully—in America. Beneath the surface of Britain there is a substratum of conservative values which would be recognizable to any American conservative, though these values are less connected than in the U.S. to religious belief.[2]

The fact remains, however, that Britain has become more socially liberal and less (in the classical sense) economically so, while America has been moving in completely the other direction. At one level, this does not matter much. People who share other things in common—language, history, legal traditions, practical interests—can get along well enough even if they live their lives according to very different standards. But at another level, it does matter because, in the end, there can arise such a level of incomprehension about how the other nation views the world that it erodes basic trust in every sphere.

To deal with this, to put across the reasoning behind its policies, and to counter the shocking degree of anti-American bias in the British (primarily electronic) media, the United States needs a far more effective public diplomacy than it has hitherto mustered. At present, such efforts as there are seem to be focused primarily on the Muslim world where, it must be said, the chances of changing minds, let alone winning hearts, are fairly minimal. Meanwhile, the U.S. is in more danger of losing the minds and hearts of the British than it realizes, which in the long run could be even more significant.

Not since the discrediting of the Congress for Cultural Freedom and the demise of the once-glittering Encounter magazine has the U.S. really been prepared to act in any decisive manner to shore up support among opinion formers in Western Europe. With mainland Europe largely lost to visceral anti-Americanism, it is high time for a convinced and convincing campaign to rally support for America’s mission and values in Britain. It is also time for a more aggressive campaign to counter the poison of anti-American disinformation which so quickly enters the bloodstream of British public opinion.[3]

British Action

This links in with the question of what more Britain can contribute to America so as to strengthen the Relationship. The most important qualities that any British Prime Minister should bring to the Anglo–American alliance today are honesty and frankness. The Administration needs to understand that, although Britain recognizes the great benefits it derives from closeness to America, Britain is a country with its own fundamental interests, and these will always come first. Britain will make sacrifices, but Britain has the right to expect rewards for them—solid and material gains, as well as gains quantified in the more general terms of influence and standing. But the Administration should always be able to take what the British government says, and above all what the Prime Minister says, at face value.

The price Britain must be prepared to pay for its Special Relationship with the U.S. is that some relationships with other powers, or with international bodies, will be more difficult and on occasion openly hostile. Britain must, therefore, choose between loyalty to America and integration with Europe; and it would, of course, be helpful if America openly recognized this fact as well. At the same time, the British government should stop trying to win points on matters where it thinks it can tweak America’s tail without provoking America’s wrath—a strategy close to the heart of the Foreign Office and one which explains in large part Britain’s attachment to the cause of universal internal jurisdiction and the International Criminal Court, its embrace of the Kyoto approach to climate change, and its vocal if somewhat ineffective involvement in African development issues.

The British government must face up to reality in two other ways that have already been mentioned. It has to recognize that foreign policy, like charity, begins at home and that this applies to British participation in the war against terrorism. Without internal security, no war can be successfully prosecuted, particularly a war against terrorists.

After the attacks of 9/11, it was Britain that drafted U.N. Security Council Resolution 1373, which called on all governments to deny safe haven to terrorists. Yet offering such haven to Islamic extremists is precisely what the Major and Blair governments have consciously done for years.[4] The policy was based on the advice of British police and intelligence services, which mistakenly believed that the Islamists had only non-British targets in their sights. Britain’s adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights and, more particularly, the provisions of its own recent Human Rights Act still prevents the speedy expulsion, extradition, or incarceration of Islamist extremists. The British political class has yet to wake up to the fact that this must change if more terrorist outrages in Britain are to be avoided.

So, too, the British government should be much more honest and realistic about the defense budget, which has to be increased to meet not just the requirements of adaptation, but also present and future dangers. There is a further, even less palatable truth which must be digested: Precisely because America has such superiority in defense technology and will therefore become more risk-averse as regards personnel, it will look increasingly to Britain to provide troops. The British government will need to prepare public opinion—and this also highlights the need for far better U.S. public diplomacy—for continuing British military casualties in future wars that are themselves an inevitable consequence, as the “axis of evil” speech argued, of the threats which continue to confront the West.

Harold Macmillan, in that irritating way of his, used to suggest that the British were the equivalent of the smooth and enlightened Greeks to America’s tough and belligerent Romans; but in any apt comparison for the future, the British must expect to play the role not of sophisticated Athens but of martial Sparta. It is at least true to national character. British youth still loves to fight; it is the traditional accompaniment to popular competitive sport, which the British love almost, though not quite, as much. Britain will need substantially to expand its military budget, but British soldiers, who still represent for most British people the archetypical and admirable expression of the British character, will do the rest. This may seem brutal, but it is the bottom line of what Britain brings, and can continue to bring, to its otherwise unequal relationship with the American superpower.

There is, though, another series of engagements on a different plane that also need to be fought. Those British friends of America who are privileged to have a public voice need, quite simply, to speak up in support of some unfashionable truths. They should, for example, point out that it is Europe and, in some respects, Britain that are dysfunctional, not the United States.

  • When the British liberal media laugh at American religiosity, the friends of America might intimate that a sound and simple Christian faith is not an obviously bad background against which to bring up children rather than, as happens frequently in Britain, outside wedlock and with multiple partners.[5]
  • They could suggest that a country like the United States which commands the fierce support of its newest immigrants may be healthier and have a sounder view of citizenship than one whose obsession with multiculturalism has turned young British Muslims into suicide bombers who hate the place of their birth.
  • Finally, they might tactfully note that America is synonymous with success: the country whose economic performance, cultural tastes, military power, and democratic model have, in open competition, swept aside every alternative before them.

Of course, it would all be easier if the British could then be persuaded to feel—as Margaret Thatcher feels—that they somehow have a “share in America,” that they are associated with America’s fortunes for good and ill, and that by some mysterious process this makes them more, not less, British.[6] If and when they do feel this, it will truly be possible to say that the Special Relationship is secure.


[1] See, for example, John C. Hulsman and Nile Gardiner, After Schroeder: U.S.–German Relations in the Merkel Era, Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1907, January 11, 2006.

[2] See the data assembled in Iain Duncan Smith, “Britain’s Conservative Majority,” Centre for Social Justice, London, December 2004.

[3] Huge harm was done to America, for instance, by the BBC’s reporting of reactions to Hurricane Katrina. The Prime Minister rightly described this to Rupert Murdoch as “full of hate of America,” as Mr. Murdoch subsequently revealed last September.

[4] This policy, well-known by hearsay, was embarrassingly exposed when it was recently learned that the London-based Islamist preacher Abu Hamza al-Masri, since sentenced on terrorist offenses to seven years in prison and wanted by America, was known as long ago as 1998 to have been connected to terrorist kidnapping and murder in Yemen, but no action was taken by the authorities. See The Times (London), February 9, 2006.

[5] On present trends, half of all British babies will be born outside of wedlock by 2012. Only 35 per cent of children born in a cohabiting union will live with both parents throughout their childhoods. See Daily Telegraph (London), February 21, 2006.

[6] Margaret Thatcher, Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World (London: HarperCollins, 2002), p. 20.


Robin Harris