The Amazing Decline of America’s Special Relationships
Why the new (old) governments in Israel and Britain bode ill for what once were Washington’s most important alliances.
Most Americans have never heard of Edward Miliband. And given this week’s result in the U.K. elections it is very likely they never will. After a crushing defeat he has already resigned as leader of the Labour Party and is poised to return to the Wallace & Gromit animated films from which he seems to have been discovered. His electoral failure and that of his party once again proves the old electoral adage that unappealing leaders and incompetent campaigns often produce bad results.
That’s not to take anything away from David Cameron, whose Conservative Party won a resounding victory that was so surprising that not only has it left Miliband out of a job, but in all likelihood he has taken scores of U.K. pollsters with him. Cameron stunned the pundits to a degree that echoes the recent electoral victory of Bibi Netanyahu in the elections in Israel, the country that along with the U.K. has historically had the greatest claim on having a special relationship with the United States.
Both elections however, suggest on several levels that those special relationships, neither of which has been what it used to be during the past several years, are in for a period of further decline.
In part, the decline in the relationships has been due to historical reasons that have made both countries less important to the United States. The United Kingdom is a shadow of its former self, the sun long ago having defied the old saying and actually having set on the former empire. British school children no longer study maps that show a quarter of the world in red or pink to depict the lands loyal to their monarch. Even Britain’s last great claim on global domination — in the area of TV car shows — suffered a devastating blow this year when “Top Gear,” broadcast in 214 countries with an audience of hundreds of millions, saw its blowhard, politically troglodyte host Jeremy Clarkson unceremoniously booted off the air for behaving like an ass, thus shutting down production.
Perhaps the fact that puts this decline in clearest focus is the steep decline in the size of the British Army. With cuts slated to take it from 102,000 to 82,000 regulars and a recent report suggesting that further cuts could reduce it in size to 50,000 within a few years, we face the prospect that in the not too distant future the military that once conquered the world will be roughly the same size as the New York Police Department. (A promise of Cameron and the Tories was that they would stop such cuts from taking place, but whether Britain’s financial health — more on that later — will permit them to honor that pledge is another matter.)
Similarly, whereas a generation ago Israel was seen as central to U.S. Mideast policy, today, while it is still America’s most important and best-supported ally in the region, events have undercut its importance in practical terms. Once it was key to the U.S. Cold War strategy in the region, but the Cold War ended. Once the Middle East was more important to the United States as a source of energy, but that is clearly less true today than at any time since the Second World War. Once the Israel-Palestine conflict was seen as central to all the problems and geopolitical issues of the region; now that is far from being the case. Indeed, that issue, once number one among U.S. regional priorities, might have a hard time making the top ten today. (Coming in after: Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, containing Iran, the Iranian nuclear deal, the spread of extremism, the current crisis in Yemen, the looming crisis in Libya, Egyptian stability, maintaining eroding support among our traditional Arab allies, and a host of other such issues.)
Further, both special relationships are fading in the minds and hearts of Americans as a new generation starts assuming power, one that has few memories of the historical reasons for the founding of Israel or of Britain’s vital partnership with the United States in two world wars.
Part of the deterioration in these two relationships has to do with policy decisions made by the governments that have just won second terms in power. The U.S.-Israel relationship sure doesn’t feel that special when the prime minister of Israel tries to politically body-slam the U.S. president. It is devalued when the prime minister of Israel appears to choose sides in the U.S. political debate, seeming to be willing to save his specialness for his Republican friends. And it is certainly deeply damaged when Israel wages a brutal and unjustifiable campaign against the people of Gaza that violates international norms and offends the sensibilities of all with a hint of conscience, as the Netanyahu government did last year.
Britain has not so much offended as it has simply slinked away from center stage. Perhaps in the wake of British public revulsion at the degree to which Tony Blair was seen to have become George W. Bush’s “poodle,” perhaps due to the degree to which national attention has been drawn to domestic problems, we have seen a reordering of the power landscape of Europe. Britain, once our closest and most important ally, now falls third on that scale behind Germany (more important) and France (more supportive of the United States in recent years). Add in the belligerent, erratic, dangerous Vladimir Putin and a newly aggressive Russia, and Britain is now only the fourth most important power with which the United States regularly deals in Europe.
The fact that Britain’s role in Europe will now be open to question for months to come, thanks to Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum regarding whether Britain should remain a part of the EU, only makes further deterioration more likely. That is because the doubt the referendum is likely to raise may have deleterious effects on the British economy. It is also because there is a possibility that Britain could choose to leave the EU. This would be economically foolish and would take the country from being an important player in the world’s largest market to being a more marginal independent actor. Further, should Scotland renew the push to breakaway from the United Kingdom, and the election results showed huge strides made by the Scottish National Party, it would clearly make a Not-So-Great Britain more likely.
Given the likelihood of President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal being successfully concluded and the U.S. administration’s commitment to ensuring that is the case, the prospect for further bad relations between Netanyahu and the White House is great. This alienation will have multiple effects, many of which have already manifested themselves to some degree. The Israelis will seek to diversify their international alliances, reaching out to India, China, Russia, and others. And the United States will seek to emphasize and cultivate other ties in the region (whether that means with Iran or with GCC partners is unclear…. Both seem unlikely, but at the same time both may expect greater efforts at outreach from Washington even as Israel sees a further chill.)
None of this is improved upon by some of the behavior and policies of the Obama administration. It doesn’t help, for example, to call the Israeli prime minister “chickenshit,” or to get drawn into petulant exchanges with the Israelis more suited to the schoolyard than to statecraft. Matters have not been helped by America’s shying away from playing the leadership role that is expected of the United States nor by the inconsistent nature of Obama’s personal diplomacy with our friends abroad. And frankly, the likelihood of the Obama team spending much real time repairing these problems during their waning days in office is pretty slim.
Will the next U.S. president aggressively seek to reverse the course of these once-crucial but now-declining relationships cited here? Undoubtedly candidates for that job will certainly promise to do so in the months ahead. But the historical factors and current geopolitical trends cited above will make it very hard for anyone to restore these relationships to the special place they occupied in the past. For Cameron and Netanyahu and their new governments, this is a reality they may wish to deny but that they will find it very difficult to reverse.
BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images