Beyond Friendship - The Future of Anglo-American Relations, Chapter Three: Tony Blair and the Special Relationship

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Beyond Friendship - The Future of Anglo-American Relations, Chapter Three: Tony Blair and the Special Relationship

May 24, 2006 16 min read
Robin Harris
Dr. Robin Harris is Senior Visiting Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. His...

Blair and Clinton

It is to Tony Blair’s credit that on becoming Prime Minister in 1997, when he had many more pressing domestic policy concerns, he put a very high priority on restoring a good relationship with Washington. Such restoration was certainly necessary. The replacement of George H. W. Bush by Bill Clinton in 1993 had ushered in a period of quite bad Anglo–American relations. John Major’s closeness to Bush and the British Conservative Party’s foolish involvement in an apparent campaign to discredit Clinton ensured that an atmosphere of personal mistrust prevailed.

The weakness of the Major government was also well-understood in Washington: Contempt thus supplemented dislike. But it was the insistence of the British—especially the two British Foreign Secretaries of the period, Douglas Hurd and Malcolm Rifkind—on sticking to a failed policy in the Balkans which led to a serious rift with Washington. Clinton, with support from leading Republicans including Senator Robert Dole, wanted to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia and launch air strikes against the Serbs to prevent further genocide. The British veto of these plans led to what the U.S. ambassador of the day described as “the worst moment in Anglo–American relations since Suez.” [1] Eventually, the U.S. insisted. The Croatian and Bosnian armies, supported by the U.S., shifted the balance of power against Serbia sufficiently to allow peace to be restored by the Dayton Agreement of November 1995.

The departure of Major after the Conservative Party’s unprecedentedly severe defeat in 1997 thus permitted a new beginning for the Special Relationship. Blair had, in fact, closely studied Clinton’s success and sought to emulate it. In the first few years, he was even prepared to be Clinton’s junior partner, notably in the President’s attempts to establish an international “Third Way,” or “New Middle” (Neue Mitte) as Germany’s Chancellor Gerhard Schröder preferred to term it.

Nothing serious came out of these summits of left-leaning leaders, a fact that also probably helped Blair’s standing with Clinton. Face to face with French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and other European socialists, Clinton and Blair, who were both committed to resisting big-government socialism, were inevitably thrown together. This, in turn, also aborted the temptation that perennially faces America to find some other alternative “special” partner or group of partners in Europe.

In any case, as in the First Gulf War, Britain proved by far the best ally America could find in an international crisis. Blair alone was prepared to collaborate in or even openly support American attempts to force Saddam Hussein into line or to punish the early manifestations of Islamic terrorism. In one instance, Britain actually took the lead in a major foreign policy initiative involving the U.S.: the NATO campaign of 1999 against Serb forces ethnically cleansing Kosovo. Blair was morally right, but he was also lucky that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević buckled when he did and withdrew his forces.

The British Prime Minister was lucky in another respect as well. His prominence in the operation irritated Clinton exceedingly and soured relations. But Clinton was now approaching the end of his term, so the fallout for the Special Relationship was insignificant. Indeed, as it turned out, Blair’s track record of liberal interventionism would prepare him well for cooperation with George W. Bush in the wake of the Islamist attacks of 9/11.

Yet while the Clinton–Blair years were more practically fruitful than the Bush–Major years that preceded them, they were also notable for the failure to address two issues of profound importance to the countries’ strategic relationship. The first of these was the need to decide how far and in what respects national sovereignty should be yielded to international institutions in the light of what some argued was an unstoppable movement toward “globalization.” Britain, for example, strongly supported the proposed International Criminal Court (ICC), which the U.S. eventually refused to accept. But this was merely the tip of the institutional iceberg of differences in attitude toward the wider question of universal jurisdiction, “global governance,” and the role of the United Nations.

The second question concerned Britain’s relationship with the European Union. One could argue, of course, that the doubts on this issue were not new, and one would be right, as these pages have already shown; but Blair’s resolve to have Britain play a central, perhaps leading role in Europe meant that, for the first time since the fall of Edward Heath in 1974, Washington was suddenly faced with the full strategic implications of its own long-term approach to European integration. Moreover, the now unmistakably federalist thrust of EU policy generally, and the way in which Britain under Blair had shifted its position on military integration with Europe, required proper analysis from Washington. This it never received.

So the new millennium opened with two large but barely acknowledged problems facing the Special Relationship. They are still unresolved.

Blair and Bush

Tony Blair had determined to forge a close relationship with President George W. Bush right from the moment of the latter’s election. In this he was not only following the advice of Bill Clinton; he was also pursuing a well-established strategy of “hug them close” (as his advisers described it), much like that which his successful predecessors adopted toward whoever was in the White House.[2] Bill Clinton had been Blair’s “friend,” as the British Prime Minister declared at the height of Clinton’s troubles in February 1998; but Blair’s friendships are never exclusive and always flexible, and George W. Bush soon became his best friend too.

In these early days, Blair’s considerable charm was much required. It allowed him to finesse his way out of several tricky situations. Thus, he persuaded Bush, quite against the actual contents of the EU agreement signed at Nice in December 2000, that European defense plans posed no threat to NATO. This somewhat shaky basis for his relationship with a conservative U.S. President might well have collapsed, however, were it not for al-Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington.

Tony Blair’s response rightly secured him the President’s and the American people’s gratitude and admiration. He palpably shared their outrage and immediately offered full support in punishing those responsible. He sat in the gallery as the President addressed Congress ten days after the attacks and heard the applause as Bush declared that America had “no truer friend than Great Britain.”

It is fair to say that Britain never stood higher in American affections than at that time. British troops subsequently participated in the American-led campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan despite various grumbles from the British military and foreign policy establishment. The President’s “axis of evil” speech again tested Blair’s mettle; but once more, despite criticism in the British media and snide remarks from his own Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, Blair endorsed both the analysis of the danger and the strategy of “pre-emption” which lay behind it.

The period of the buildup to the war in Iraq was still more difficult for the Prime Minister, and it was now that his broader political approach began to founder. It is, indeed, from the consequences of Blair’s actions during those months that many of his own and, more significantly, the Anglo–American Relationship’s problems flow. It is important to understand why this is so (and just as important for supporters of the Iraq War as for its critics) because the Special Relationship cannot stand a repetition of what transpired. The trouble stemmed from the fact that although Blair appeared to subscribe to the “everything’s changed” doctrine adopted by America, in his heart he did not—perhaps could not—do so.

A Bridge Too Far

President Bush had proclaimed in addressing Congress after 9/11: “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or with you are with the terrorists.” But Blair, for all his zeal in supporting America, did not really see the world in these terms. He was and is the result of a sort of historic compromise between Left and Right. His considerable success in politics has been built upon an instinctive preference for “both…and” rather than “either…or.” He is a creature of compromise, even if his bellicose language serves to disguise it. So, despite the clear message from Washington, he continued to regard Britain’s supreme international role as that of a “bridge” between the U.S. and Europe.

This did not reflect reality, and so, as often happens when awkward realities are ignored in international affairs, the path of illusion proved the road to ruin. Of course, Blair could argue that Europe was not exactly (in the President’s words) “with the terrorists.” But most European countries and the governing bureaucracy of the European Union were certainly not “with” America in the sense of accepting American strategic goals in the war against terrorism. They were, indeed, shocked and appalled by the “axis of evil” speech. They did not see any reason to change their approach of putting commercial interests and political rivalry with the United States above any need to counter Islamic terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Moreover, in this, the Europeans were far from alone. Despite their own problems with Islamic militants, neither China nor Russia would go along with America’s analysis in any consistent manner. Blair particularly wanted good relations with Russia, where he had hoped to recreate with Vladimir Putin Mrs. Thatcher’s relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev, and he was also keen to cultivate China; Britain had, after all, been at the forefront of those wishing to renew arms sales to the People’s Republic. He had, above all, spent his first four years in office proclaiming the need to strengthen the United Nations. How could he reconcile that multilateralist approach with the new unilateralist mood in Washington—a mood fully shared by the American people?

Even more important, because fundamental to Blair’s ability to control events at home, was the fact that his whole approach to managing the Labour Party was thrown into doubt. Of course, most Labour MPs, like their electors, had the greatest sympathy with the American people after 9/11, but that did not remove Labour’s deep suspicion of American policy. Labour MPs felt that they had already been drawn into too close an embrace of America because of Blair’s “friendship” with first Clinton and then Bush.

They had some reason to be suspicious. Partly through guile and partly because he simply preferred that way of doing things, Blair had led them along a foreign policy path that allowed him to be acclaimed as Washington’s friend at the expense of concealing his true intentions from his colleagues. Each step had been solemnly proclaimed as the last: acceptance of U.S. plans for ballistic missile defense but not participation in it; action against Afghanistan but not Iraq; then action against Iraq but only with U.N. approval and as part of a wider coalition. But what then? What if there was no such approval, no wider coalition, and outright hostility from Europe?

At this point, the famous “bridge” analogy seems all too appropriate, but more as the subject of a disaster movie and less as a reassuring metaphor. Bridges can tolerate much buffeting by the elements, but they cannot stand when the span they are bridging expands. Tectonic shifts, like that set off by 9/11, cause them to totter and fall.

Yet Blair hung on desperately to his bridge. He defended it by engaging in an extraordinary globe-trotting campaign of diplomacy, first to gain support for attacking Afghanistan and then, and much less successfully, for the war against Iraq. But he also indulged in and encouraged in others a large amount of wishful thinking. The height of this was perhaps his speech at the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library in Texas on April 7, 2002:

Forget the talk of Anti-Americanism in Europe. Yes, if you call a demonstration, you will get the slogans and the insults. But people know Europe needs America, and I believe America needs Europe too.

This message was grossly misleading. Europe, at least in the Donald Rumsfeldian sense of “Old Europe,” was already profoundly anti-American and would become ever more stridently so. For almost another year, the British Prime Minister squandered his capital in Washington in trying to persuade America to wait until it had a clear authorization from the U.N. Security Council to act against Saddam Hussein.

He could have used it otherwise. He might have tried to ensure that better preparation was made for the aftermath of the war. He could have reassured himself that a political strategy for post-war Iraq engaged as much of Washington’s attention as the military or diplomatic strategies for fighting the war. He could have done what Thatcher always did with Reagan: ask those tricky practical questions which get overlooked by politicians, generals, and officials as they cope in Washington with the need to justify themselves to each other and to the media. Instead, Britain became furiously involved in intradepartmental squabbles within the Administration whose existence made successful planning more difficult, not less.

Paradoxically, during the same visit on which Blair airily assured Americans that anti-Americanism was no danger, the difference between America’s and Britain’s justification for war against Iraq had been nakedly exposed. At a joint press conference with the British Premier, President Bush said, apparently without intentional irony: “Maybe I should be a little less direct and be a little more nuanced, and say we support régime change [in Iraq].”

This was, of course, far from nuanced in Blair’s eyes. It was embarrassingly frank. He had been warned that a war undertaken for such a purpose was probably illegal. More important, without this legal cover, he would be unlikely to bring the Labour Party, or perhaps even a majority of his Cabinet, to support it.

For Blair, the only sufficient justification for war was Saddam Hussein’s continued possession of WMD. One can debate the extent to which Blair and his officials manipulated or glossed the evidence to suggest that Saddam had these weapons and that they posed a serious threat. The fact is that he had to put all his eggs in this one fragile basket. When it was clear that there were no WMD and that the supporting evidence was wrong, his credibility with the British public as a war leader was irrevocably destroyed, and with it his capacity to lead public opinion in support of America.

What Went Wrong

Could matters have been handled differently? The question is of more than academic interest because it goes to the heart of whether the Anglo–American Special Relationship is sustainable—and a relationship that inevitably crumbles when casualties mount is not.

The answer is, or should be, encouraging: It need not have turned out this way. Given the fact that there turned out to be no WMD, there was always bound to be anger among critics of the war in Britain. Given the failure to bring stability to Iraq and arrest the spiral of military and civilian casualties, that criticism was bound to spread further. But it was the sense of having been deceived, directly by Blair and indirectly by America, that caused the approval ratings for the war to plunge. This was avoidable, but probably not by Blair or any other leader of the British Labour Party. Again, it is important for Americans to understand why this is so.

The Conservative Party leader, Michael Howard, came in for some strong criticism and even, it seems, a severe political snub from the White House because of his attacks on Blair over the war. The Tories deserved what they got; opportunists in matters of war and peace always do. But the fact remains that a Conservative Prime Minister would have been better able to deliver America the sustained support of the British public than was Tony Blair. A direct and simple appeal to British national interest in the Atlantic alliance—and thus to supporting America, right or wrong (though preferably and probably right)—could have been made by a right-of-center politician as it was made, in more or less these terms, by John Howard in Australia. By contrast, Blair’s and New Labour’s liberal idealist and internationalist ideology precluded such an appeal. That is what prompted the Prime Minister to make exaggerated and subsequently discredited claims to the House of Commons.

The enduring lesson for the Special Relationship is stark: Personal good will—even personal courage of the sort Blair displayed during the crisis—is no substitute for getting the arguments right. And unless one can base one’s arguments and subsequent explanations and, when necessary, excuses on the sure foundations of national interest, public support will crumble. This it has done, along with Blair’s bridge of Euro-Atlanticism.

The brutal reality is that, as he reaches the end of his time in Downing Street, Tony Blair’s legacy is a gravely weakened, not strengthened, Special Relationship. Of course, Blair is still popular in America, and he will be able to put that popularity to good use during lecture tours for years to come. Britain’s Prime Minister also has the ear of the world’s most powerful leader. Britain even seems, on occasion, to be able to influence American policy.

  • The Administration’s shift in favor of aid to Africa reflects one of Blair’s private obsessions.
  • The U.S. has taken a marginally more favorable view of the Palestinians, at least until the election of Hamas, because of British badgering.
  • If, very sensibly, the U.S. has refused to sign up to Kyoto or a successor, American public doubts have, not so sensibly, been toned down on climate change.
  • America, equally ill-advisedly, allows its policy toward volatile Southeast Europe to be set largely by the British Foreign Office.[3]
  • Above all, American attitudes toward the European project—very foolishly indeed, as will be explained—have become more favorable, in part to make Tony Blair’s life more comfortable.

For these ambiguous triumphs, Blair may take a little personal credit; but what they all have in common is that they do not advance British national interest in the slightest degree, and they accordingly cut no ice with British public opinion. Blair has delivered nothing of substance to the country in exchange for sacrifices that have become highly unpopular. For example, Britain gained no preferential treatment when it came to handing out contracts for Iraqi construction over competitor countries that had spent years bankrolling Saddam and had ferociously opposed the war.

It is unfair to describe the U.S. Administration as ungrateful: It has never been asked for any favors worth having. Instead, the inside accounts of Blair’s dealings with the President have conveyed to the British public a slightly pathetic selflessness, which might be accounted an asset in a personal friend but seems misplaced in a national leader.

Blair’s Legacy

The cumulative result of Blair’s relationship with Bush is that its very closeness has brought America’s standing in Britain low—not so low, it is true, as in most of Europe, let alone in the Muslim world, but lower than it should be and substantially lower than, for example, in India.[4]

  • Not only do a large majority of the British now believe that the war in Iraq was wrong, but they also feel that the world is less safe since Saddam went. A poll taken after the hundredth British military death in Iraq showed that 62 per cent favored withdrawal.[5]
  • Even support for the U.S. war against terrorism has dropped since 2002 from almost 70 per cent to barely 50 per cent.
  • Overall, the British, like the other main European nations, now support a more distant foreign and security relationship with the U.S. They give higher favorability ratings to Germany, France, Japan, and even China than to the U.S.[6]

Of course, some of this should be taken with several spoonfuls of salt. In most of the world, it is whether a great power is respected (or even feared) that counts more than whether it is liked when determining how other powers behave toward it. The Roman proto-dictator Sulla’s favorite epigram—“Let them hate me, as long as they fear me”—contains more wisdom than is often allowed.

That said, being as unpopular as America now is in most Western countries does constitute a serious indirect weakness for American power. It means that, as recently in Germany and Spain and as regularly in France, European politicians play up to anti-Americanism to get elected, and this makes subsequent cooperation with the U.S. much more difficult. This is even more important in Britain, precisely because the Special Relationship has always been based upon strong popular support and because Britain, like America, is a country where democracy is both vibrant and demanding.

Perhaps the greatest damage done to America’s reputation over the past few years is within the British liberal establishment: the intelligentsia, the civil service mandarinate, the more powerful media people, and a sprinkle of senior politicians. Within this group, anti-Americanism has always, of course, been rife; but the enemies of the American superpower have been given new heart, and the uncommitted majority are less inclined than in the past to tell them to be quiet. Anti-Americanism is now taking some extreme forms, more reminiscent of the late 1960s or of the height of the Cold War in the early 1980s. Thus, we find the British playwright Harold Pinter using his Nobel Lecture last December to declare:

The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless…. I put it to you that the United States is without doubt the greatest show on the road. Brutal, indifferent, scornful and ruthless it may be, but it is also very clever…. It also has its own bleating little lamb tagging behind it on a lead, the pathetic and supine Great Britain.

Hardly great prose, and not obviously rational: but Pinter did get his Nobel Prize. A further, rather more significant example is that of Sir Rodric Braithwaite, former British ambassador in Moscow and at one time chairman, no less, of the Cabinet’s Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC):

Whatever other casualties the Iraq war produces, whatever difficulties appear in the aftermath, one thing is clear. Even in victory the principles on which British foreign policy have been based since Suez are now among the walking wounded…. There is, in any case, a good deal less to the special relationship between Britain and the US than meets the eye. For the British it is an emotional comfort blanket for a declining power.[7]

And so the diatribe continues, concluding, very predictably, with a call for Britain to integrate further with Europe. The political forces seeking to drive a wedge between Britain and America are thus more confident than they have been for many years. Americans should expect this to make Britain a less reliable partner—unless something is done to solve the problems which Tony Blair’s term as Prime Minister has contrived to create.


[1]Brendan Simms, Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia (London: Allen Lane, 2001), p. 114.

[2]The phrase also provides the title of the best account of Blair’s relations with Presidents Clinton and Bush (until 2003): Peter Riddell, Hug Them Close: Blair, Clinton, Bush and the “Special Relationship” (London: Politico’s, 2003).

[3]See my article, “America, The Hague, and Ante Gotovina: The Railroading of a Former U.S. Ally,” The American Spectator, March 2006.

[4]For this and what follows, see the detailed 16-Nation Pew Global Attitudes Survey of June 23, 2005.

[5]Populus poll for The Times (London), February 8, 2006.

[6]On the other hand, the British remain more favorable toward the American people than are any other European country; and in a study of various unpleasant characteristics, which might or might not be associated with Americans, the British are more likely than others to think Americans polite and morally upright. This, though, is only moderately encouraging. See Pew Global Attitudes Survey, June 23, 2005.

[7]Rodric Braithwaite, “End of the Affair,” Prospect, May 2003.


Robin Harris