Britain is so desperate for America's approval that it doesn't realize the "special relationship" was never really in its interest.
The foreign trips of U.S. presidents, especially Barack Obama’s, are rather like the tours of a rock group. There’s the ridiculous entourage and onerous security measures, of course. But just as a lead singer always boosts fans’ self-esteem by telling them their hometown is the best in the world, American presidents likewise cannot set foot overseas without emphasizing the importance of the country they are visiting and the specialness of that country’s relationship with the United States.
Nowhere is this more true than with Britain. Every time a U.S. president takes office, the British press worries that the new man may be insufficiently Anglophiliac. This hysteria reached new heights of absurdity when Barack Obama was elected.
According to the hyperventilating press, Bill Clinton was supposed to have developed a dislike for Britain during his time as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. George W. Bush had only visited Scotland as a teenager and, besides, he was supposed to be some kind of neo-isolationist (how did that turn out?). Now there’s Obama, who was said to dislike Britain because it brutally suppressed the Mau-Mau uprising in Kenya, his father’s birthplace. The proof of this, endlessly repeated on conservative talk radio in America, was that the president had replaced a bust of Winston Churchill in the Oval Office with one of Abraham Lincoln.
This is tedious beyond belief. The relationship between the White House and Downing Street has been fetishized beyond satire. Each new U.S. president has to be reminded by his staff to mention the magic words “special relationship” when he first meets the British prime minister. If Britain really needs this kind of validation then it’s in bigger trouble than even the most anxious doomsayers thought.
This week Barack Obama was at pains to stress that it wasn’t merely “special” — it was “unique” and “necessary” and “indispensable.” Brits like to joke about this, but if Obama had not said it, then all the talk would have been of snubs and Britain being ditched for a new, prettier girl somewhere in the east.
But that’s happening anyway. Britain’s relationship with the United States is undoubtedly strong, and to the extent that it’s built on a shared culture, it is, indeed, special. In terms of hard politics, however, it is not as important as the relationships Washington has with Beijing and Jerusalem, or even Moscow and Delhi. And Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, Seoul, Ottowa, and Mexico City each also have claims to “special” relationships with Washington.
Indeed, far from being “special,” for most of its history the relationship between the United States and Great Britain has been awkward, even difficult.
Speaking to the joint houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall yesterday, Obama made joking references to the Boston Tea Party and the War of 1812, as if to suggest that these were unfortunate misunderstandings belonging to ancient history long-since buried by the sands of time. It is an attitude that has become customary for these occasions.
But in the interest of maintaining decorum, it was necessary for Obama to skip past the Monroe Doctrine warning Britain (and other European powers) not to interfere in the Western Hemisphere. He had to ignore the fact that British opinion, to say nothing of British-built ships, favored the Confederacy during the American Civil War. And he had to ignore, to take but one example, a border dispute between British Guyana and Venezuela that provoked President Grover Cleveland to declare in 1895 that the United States would “resist by every means in its power as a willful aggression upon its rights and interests.”
Nor did mutual Anglo-American suspicion end there. After World War I, public opinion in the United States largely blamed Britain for dragging the it into a costly, unnecessary war. The 1930s, meanwhile, were dogged by trade disputes as the Americans, not unreasonably, chafed against the protectionism of Britain’s Imperial Preference tariff system.
The “special relationship” mythologized by the Thatcher-Reagan and Bush-Blair partnerships is much cloudier — and more recent — than folk memory allows. If it weren’t for the Nazis — and latterly, the Soviets — there’d be little love lost between these two countries. Even if you gerrymander the stretches of purely cordial ties, it would be dishonest to call it a true partnership at all.
The greatest triumph of the Anglo-American alliance also revealed its essential imbalance, and the spirit of passive aggression at its very root. Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt did forge a bargain on the basis of mutual respect and common enmity, but as the war progressed, the United States made sure that the balance of power tilted as far in its own direction as possible. This, like so much else in the relationship, may have been inevitable. But for Churchill, the origins of the historic alliance resided in a historic failure: The cost of success in one area — defeating Nazism — was matched by the scale of his defeat in another: protecting the British Empire, the great love of his life, from Roosevelt’s predations.
Sweeping the British Empire from the world’s stage, and thus diminishing Britain’s geopolitical clout, was a secondary, but still important, American war aim from the outset. Roosevelt’s post-war vision had room for two great powers — the United States and the Soviet Union — but not for three. Britain would be both victor and vanquished, left glorious but bankrupt by World War II.
Such are the harsh and ironic realities of power politics. Charles de Gaulle was ultimately more attuned to them than Churchill. In November 1944, he proposed a new alliance between Britain and France. “Should England and France agree to act together … they will wield enough power to prevent anything being done which they themselves have not accepted or decided. Our two countries will follow us. America and Russia, hampered by their rivalry, will be unable to counter it.” Churchill disagreed, hoping instead to influence the Americans from inside their shared English-speaking tent.
Even in 1945, Washington was frequently vexed by British attitudes. “The pro-British line always needs defending in this country; the anti-British never,” complained a British Treasury official stationed in the American capital.
All this is to say that the specialness of the relationship between Britain and the United States is both a more recent phenomenon than is generally appreciated and a product of the belated American realization that Stalin was not a man with whom it was possible to do business.
NATO and the other parts of the Atlantic Alliance were a necessary response to the newfound Soviet threat, but the U.S.-U.K. relationship only became warm once Britain’s fading power had been utterly supplanted by a new age of American hegemony in the West. For a long time, the United States and Great Britain had been like cable cars traveling in different directions, one ascending the mountain, the other descending.
It was only when Washington reached the mountain-top and Britain the valley floor that the relationship between the two great capitals could be renewed on more or less honest terms — terms in which, for once, both parties knew precisely where the other stood. Britain’s new role would be as a junior but well-liked officer on secondment to America’s big battalion.
Even so, loyalties are a complicated business. Both countries fought under a U.N. flag in Korea, but Prime Minister Harold Wilson declined President Lyndon Johnson’s entreaty to send even one battalion of Highland infantry to fight in Vietnam. More recently, the U.S. government took its time before backing Britain during the Falklands War and there were some in Washington, most notably Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who felt the United States should have supported the Argentines.
These differences, like many others, have been forgotten, forgiven, or otherwise smoothed-over in recent years. The wars in the Gulf, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Libya have deepened already extensive Anglo-American co-operation. Even so, when Donald Rumsfeld suggested the United States could have invaded Iraq without British assistance he was not wrong.
In return for providing a security umbrella, the United States has received considerable loyalty from British prime ministers, often at some cost to their own domestic popularity. Tony Blair suffered more than most from this and was mortally wounded by his dogged alliance with George W. Bush.
Perhaps that’s why President Obama tactfully ignored discussing the Iraq War this week. The British army’s mission in Iraq ended last week but, doubtless on account of his own opposition to the war and mindful of how unpopular it became in Britain, he made no mention of the conflict that, more than anything else, has defined the U.S.-U.K. relationship this century. Instead there was an announcement of increased cooperation on matters like higher education and global development. All worthy; none earth-shattering.
Yet as defense budgets are hard-pressed by economic constraints one wonders, again, what the future holds for the Washington-London axis. Obama came to Britain to reassure the old country that despite America’s shift towards the Pacific, Europe and Britain still matter to Washington.
Culture and cooperation on intelligence sharing and other matters ensure that Britain and the United States will remain friends. But it is not the only card Washington holds, and it’s not one London should overvalue either. There’s nothing wrong with being good friends, but the British betray their insecurity by repeatedly demanding that Washington pronounce its undying loyalty. Desperate and clingy partners rarely last for the long-term.
Alex Massie writes for the Spectator, the Times, and other publications.
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