Divided by an Ocean
From the April 5, 2010, issue of NR.


John O’Sullivan

Earlier administrations have succumbed to these ideological temptations. The first President Bush started by “signaling” that Germany had replaced the U.K. as America’s closest European ally because geo-economics had replaced geopolitics as the organizing principle of U.S. policy. Then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait; Germany and geo-economics both took a back seat. In a dangerous and unstable world, a dependable ally with military forces can come in very handy.

A superficial (but not wrong) view of the special relationship explains its perennial usefulness as follows: Born in World War II and strengthened during the Cold War, the Anglo-American alliance is a unique example of military, diplomatic, and intelligence cooperation that goes very deep in the governing institutions of both countries. Administrations come and go, but there is a degree of inter-operability between the British and American armed forces and intelligence agencies far greater than that between those of the U.S. and any other nation — except, significantly, Australia. The example usually given is that the London representative of the CIA sits in at meetings of Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee (well, most of the meeting). But there are many such arrangements. This intimate cooperation is underpinned by the habit of working together over a long period — and by the close social connections that grow from that. But all these links depend on something more significant than habit or politics or affection. For realists are right to mock the idea that national policies should or even can rest on such straws. In reality all these things rest on the fact that the two countries are part of the same cultural-political sphere. They tend to see the world in the same ways — and accordingly to act in the world in the same ways.

James C. Bennett has popularized this wider cultural concept in his books and articles on “the Anglosphere” (which includes other English-speaking countries as well as America and Britain). He explains the different ways in which “Anglosphere exceptionalism” has flowered in different climes when transplanted from its original cultural soil of English individualism — but also how it has retained common features that facilitate an easy cooperation between Anglosphere countries. The Chilean-Australian scholar Claudio Véliz, in his book The New World of the Gothic Fox, similarly contrasts sterile Spanish order with the English liberty that in his view has shaped the modern world. And this concept also has more cautious adherents, if not necessarily admirers, on the left. In his book Between Europe and America: The Future of British Politics, Andrew Gamble, professor of politics at Cambridge University, sees what he calls “Anglo-America” as the hegemonic world civilization for the last 200 years. Its constituent elements include “the idea of a global economy governed by free trade and sound finance and respect for property rights, and the idea of a global polity governed by the principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”

In other words, the special relationship is merely one conscious expression in diplomacy, politics, and military affairs of a wider and deeper set of cultural understandings. Nor is this an exercise in nostalgia, as the critics tend to assume. Gamble notes with reluctant awe that “by the end of the 20th century the whole world was once more being governed by the Anglo-American conception of a liberal world order.”

That order was shaken, at least temporarily, by the financial crash. As the title of Gamble’s book suggests, moreover, it is now threatened with replacement — both internationally and in British politics — by more regulatory, interventionist, and centralizing conceptions deriving from continental Europe. Emboldened by the financial crisis, France and Germany seek to regulate the investment flows of hedge funds and “Anglo-Saxon speculators” — over the united opposition of the U.S. and U.K. treasuries. But how long will that unity last? Under the Lisbon treaty, the City of London — approximately one-fifth of the U.K. economy — will come under the increasing sway of Brussels.

As Britain’s election campaign gets under way, no major party promises to roll back these regulatory interventions. Indeed, all the talk is in the other direction, notably about greater defense cooperation between Britain and France. That would inevitably come at the expense of Anglo-American defense and intelligence collaboration. Yet the strongest natural supporters of Anglosphere collaboration, the opposition Tories, are (with a few exceptions) oddly quiet on such topics. They want to avoid a row with “Europe,” even though “Europe” is shorthand for the gradual dissolution of their main national political tradition. That, in turn, compels them to avoid any rhetoric that might awaken patriotic memories. So Britain drifts towards an illiberal European future and away from the U.S. and the Anglosphere on a great sea of ignorance about its own history and boredom with its own identity.

Unless that changes, Americans will soon have to discover Australia — if only to distance themselves from it.

– This article first appeared in the April 5, 2010, issue of National Review.