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Britain’s Special Relationship Fantasy Has Been Exposed

For years, London convinced itself it was Washington’s close partner. That’s now impossible to believe.

By , a professor of democracy, human rights, and journalism at Bard College.
U.S. President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson attend the G-7 summit.
U.S. President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson attend the G-7 summit in Carbis Bay, England, on June 11. WPA Pool/Getty Images

When U.S. President Joe Biden decided earlier this year to pull all American troops out of Afghanistan, he did so without consulting British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. And as mass evacuations from Kabul began in August, Johnson’s frantic phone calls to the White House were ignored for 36 hours. All this happened even though Britain sent more troops to Afghanistan and Iraq than any other U.S. ally. In pure military terms the British contribution may not have amounted to very much, but since 9/11 Britain had consistently given the United States political cover in the “war on terror.”

The Afghanistan withdrawal thus made Britain’s abject position in the so-called “special relationship” with Washington humiliatingly apparent. The United States is being accused by some critics of no longer being a serious power after its latest debacle abroad. But Britain is in an even worse position, because its claim to high international status has rested heavily on the special relationship since World War Two.

Britain’s low importance in Washington ought to have been apparent already. In 2003, Tony Blair committed his country to standing “shoulder to shoulder with our American friends” in the Iraq War; but when George W. Bush began the invasion of Iraq, Blair first learned about it by watching the television news. Blair was ignored by the White House, too. Now he is reduced to lamenting that Islamism, of the sort now reigning in Afghanistan, remains “a first-order security threat” for the West, and that nation building is as important as ever.

When U.S. President Joe Biden decided earlier this year to pull all American troops out of Afghanistan, he did so without consulting British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. And as mass evacuations from Kabul began in August, Johnson’s frantic phone calls to the White House were ignored for 36 hours. All this happened even though Britain sent more troops to Afghanistan and Iraq than any other U.S. ally. In pure military terms the British contribution may not have amounted to very much, but since 9/11 Britain had consistently given the United States political cover in the “war on terror.”

The Afghanistan withdrawal thus made Britain’s abject position in the so-called “special relationship” with Washington humiliatingly apparent. The United States is being accused by some critics of no longer being a serious power after its latest debacle abroad. But Britain is in an even worse position, because its claim to high international status has rested heavily on the special relationship since World War Two.

Britain’s low importance in Washington ought to have been apparent already. In 2003, Tony Blair committed his country to standing “shoulder to shoulder with our American friends” in the Iraq War; but when George W. Bush began the invasion of Iraq, Blair first learned about it by watching the television news. Blair was ignored by the White House, too. Now he is reduced to lamenting that Islamism, of the sort now reigning in Afghanistan, remains “a first-order security threat” for the West, and that nation building is as important as ever.

Blair’s lofty rhetoric, heard 20 years ago after the 9/11 attacks, about spreading freedom and democracy and not resting “until [the Islamist] evil is driven from our world”—implying that Britain would naturally do so alongside its close partner the United States—has a long history. The notion of Anglo-American exceptionalism, stemming from a shared love of liberty, goes back at least as far as the 19th century. William E. Forster, a British politician in William Gladstone’s liberal government, lent his name to something called “Forsterism,” which was the conviction that Anglo-American Protestants were called by God to spread democracy to the world’s benighted peoples. The mission to intervene in other nations in the name of liberty, with military force in necessary, is historically linked to this. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a secular version of Forsterism.

Winston Churchill often referred to “Anglo-Saxon liberties” at the beginning of World War Two. His aim was to persuade the United States to come to Britain’s rescue. This was why he popularized the notion of a special relationship. Unfortunately, the British, from Churchill to Margaret Thatcher to Blair to Johnson, have been unable to let go of it.

That Churchill had such a hard time persuading the United States to intervene against Hitler shows that U.S. foreign policy has not always been interventionist. Manifest Destiny was used to justify wars in Mexico and against Native Americans, and Abraham Lincoln’s promise at Gettysburg that American freedom shall not perish from this earth was quoted by some commentators to justify the invasion of Iraq. But there have also been periods of withdrawal, of not wishing to be involved in the struggles of faraway peoples.

Biden’s decision to pull the troops from Afghanistan might be seen in this light. He is following a path started by Barack Obama and continued in cruder form by Donald Trump. Biden has long been skeptical of U.S. military interventions. As Obama’s vice president, he argued against using military force in Syria and Libya. But the assumption that his time in office will be remembered as one of the United States’ isolationist periods is surely premature. Biden may simply be switching his attention to another part of the world. Rhetorically at least, the American fight for freedom is now focused on China.

There is, however, a historical reason why versions of Forsterism have persisted in both U.S. and British policies. It is the same reason why Britain has clung on to the special relationship for so long: the victory against Germany and Japan. Yes, the Soviet Union might have done the heaviest fighting, but the end of World War Two, and the successful return of democracy in Germany and Japan, confirmed the Anglo-American idea that the United States and Britain are unique bastions and promoters of freedom. Forgetting that both Germany and Japan had prewar democratic institutions to build upon, some people even assumed that democratic nation building would be as easily done in Baghdad or Kabul.

That the United States would assume the role of leader of the “free world” after World War Two was inevitable, and at least in Europe and East Asia widely welcomed. The Cold War against communism led the United States into foolish wars, but countries under the U.S. nuclear umbrella could concentrate on building up their economies without worrying too much about security. For many people in Germany, Japan, France, and other rich countries, the quality of life is now higher than for most Americans.

The same is perhaps true for parts of Britain too. But the British may have been the biggest losers of Pax Americana. By holding on to a relationship with the United States that was regarded as far more special in London than in Washington, Britain forfeited its chance to take a leading role in Europe and shape its institutions. Even Churchill, who was one of the earliest advocates of a united Europe (in a 1946 speech in Zurich), could not see Britain as one of its members.

After all, Britain had won the war, and so it turned down offer after offer from other European countries to help build common European institutions. Until it was too late. When Harold Macmillan finally realized, in his words, that Britain was no longer a great power but could still be a great country inside Europe, General Charles de Gaulle turned down the British application for European Economic Community (EEC) membership in 1963. De Gaulle reminded Macmillan of Churchill’s words to him in 1944: If Britain had to choose between Europe and the open sea, she would choose the latter.

Then-British Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused to send troops to help Lyndon B. Johnson’s war in Vietnam, but this was an exception. Time and time again, when Britain had to choose between following America’s lead and siding with European objections, Britain did the former. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was just the most recent example. The irony is that the United States has consistently favored British membership of European institutions. Britain was most useful to the United States as a full member of a European community; it would be the most reliable defender of U.S. interests in Europe (one reason why de Gaulle blocked British membership).

But even after Britain became a full member of the EEC and the European Union, British prime ministers felt closer to Washington than to Brussels. The conservative press in London depicted Europe as a kind of colonial oppressor to be resisted. A combination of wartime nostalgia, English chauvinism, genuine skepticism about European federalism, opportunistic populism, and sheer bloody-mindedness then convinced half the British voters in a referendum to pull Britain out of Europe again.

Johnson promised a new era of “global Britain.” The special relationship with the United States would be restored in all its glory. Unchained from Brussels, Anglo-Saxon freedom would rule once more.

Then the U.S. president refused to take his call.

Ian Buruma is a professor of democracy, human rights, and journalism at Bard College. He is the author of numerous books, including Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance and Year Zero: A History of 1945.

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