EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this article appeared in today’s Evening Standard in London. It is reprinted with permission.
Tony Blair arrives in Washington, D.C., this week on a mission. He supposedly hopes to persuade his old friend, Pres. George W. Bush, to take a friendlier official view of the Kyoto environmental accords, and the cancellation of Africa’s debts.
Mission Impossible? Well, it is unlikely that the prime minister will get what he says he wants. The U.S. administration shares the view of many development economists that debt cancellation is a damaging and counterproductive form of aid. And Americans have noticed that some of the “greenest” European governments are not meeting their own Kyoto targets. But Blair will get something, probably something very substantial, and maybe something more important than either of his much-publicized aims.
One reason for that is the prime minister is both respected and liked in Washington. The Bush administration was quietly pleased at the victory of their Iraq war ally. Bush did Blair the great service of not praising him during the campaign–it must have required enormous self-control–and he will now want to show the U.S. values him and listens to his advice.
Nor is there anything unusual about this. It is a very rare British prime minister who is not liked and respected in Washington–namely, Edward Heath who took the Gaullist view that being “European” meant keeping his distance from the U.S.
Otherwise, the “special relationship” between Britain and America has been expressed in a series of partnerships between presidents and prime ministers. These political partnerships have been both warm and productive while often cutting across the usual divisions of left and right: the Tory Churchill and the Democrat FDR; the Tory Macmillan and the Democrat Kennedy; the Labour Wilson and the Democrat LBJ; the Tory Thatcher and the Republican Reagan; and now, famously, the New Labor Blair and the Republican George W. Among the achievements of the special relationship are the victories in the Second World War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Falklands War, the Gulf War, and the Cold War.
Yet whenever these prime ministers flew into Washington, they had generally left behind in London a series of editorial jeremiads bemoaning the very existence of the special relationship as a delusion damaging to British interests that few Americans took seriously. That view is much less common on the American side. Indeed, the last occasion it was held at high levels can be precisely dated–it was between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the start of the Gulf War. In that brief interregnum, the first Bush administration, sensibly preoccupied with the diplomacy of re-uniting Germany and less sensibly anxious to distinguish itself from the Anglophile Reagan, talked up geo-economics over geo-politics, and Germany over Britain as America’s most important European ally.
Then Saddam Hussein sent his tanks into Kuwait–and Germany with its Bundesbank seemed a less useful ally than Britain with its Desert Rats. The special relationship has flourished ever since.
Its long success rests, however, on much deeper foundations than current diplomatic or military convenience. As the American writer, James C. Bennett, demonstrates in his important new book, The Anglosphere Challenge, Britain and the U.S. share with other English-speaking countries similar legal, economic, cultural, and political traditions–and thus a similar way of looking at the world. We jointly developed a democratic politics of “ordered liberty” very different from the bureaucratic centralism of continental Europe; we established and upheld the international liberal order of free trade and investment; and we had the mettle to defend free institutions against global threats as various as communism and Islamist terrorism. This similarity of outlook and interest made possible an unprecedented degree of Anglo-American cooperation in intelligence sharing, nuclear R&D, military affairs, and diplomacy. One example: A CIA representative sits in at the Downing Street meetings of the Joint Intelligence Committee.
Set against this thickly textured cooperation, most criticisms of the special relationship come off sounding trivial, false, and resentful. It is silly to claim, for instance, that British prime ministers have obtained nothing for Britain from the special relationship. Churchill got a level of nuclear cooperation denied to every other country; Macmillan obtained the Trident missiles essential for deterrence; and Thatcher was given state-of-the-art U.S. weapons for British soldiers during the Falklands war before America’s own troops.
Nor is it true that British prime ministers have never swayed U.S. policy on important questions. In the most recent of innumerable examples, Blair persuaded Bush both to seek a second U.N. resolution and to push for Israeli-Palestinian talks in the run-up to the Iraq war. Those were important concessions at the time. The fact that they produced less-than-stellar results is a criticism more of those who sought them than of those who reluctantly granted them.
The only criticism with any substance is the claim of some Tory historians that the special relationship helped FDR and later presidents to undermine the British Empire. In fact, the empire was bound to decline after 1945 as a result of Britain’s diminished power, aggravated by our own liberal principles. Handing over responsibility for global order to our fellow-liberal power, the U.S., was both right and unavoidable. In the main it was handled well by both sides. But episodes like Suez and follies such as FDR’s outdated anti-imperialism inevitably grated on the side sounding the retreat. To focus on those things today, when globalization testifies to the extraordinary success of both Britain and America in repairing a broken world, is to throw out the baby in order to drink the bathwater.
If these arguments are largely false, however, on what is hostility to the “special relationship” based? It has two main contemporary enemies–Europe and (paradoxically) Tony Blair.
Devotees of the “European Idea” see the special relationship as an obstacle to Britain’s committing herself unreservedly to a European destiny. Hence they want to weaken the ties described above. They seek, for instance, to undermine the unique Anglo-American defense and intelligence sharing by inter alia removing Britain from the Echelon electronic eavesdropping network of English-speaking countries.
This broad approach seemed foolish even before last week’s referendums. The EU is a stagnant economy with low growth, a demographic crisis, undemocratic political institutions, and no idea of what to do. The idea that Britain should commit herself exclusively to it is less geo-economics than necrophilia. The markets of the future are in Asia and North America where, as it happens, the ties of language, law, and history embodied in the Anglosphere give Britain a marked advantage over its European “partners.” Churchill’s idea that British foreign policy should consist of “three circles” linking this country to Europe, the U.S., and the Commonwealth looks more and more modern as India emerges as a great power, the U.S. remains the global Atlas, and the Internet elevates cultural ties over geographical proximity as a factor in world politics.
Blair, fitted out with Foreign Office blinkers, has seen none of this. He has consistently sought deeper British commitment to a failing Europe and encouraged the U.S. to accept forms of Euro-integration that are plainly hostile to American interests such as a separate European defense structure. On top of that, he has unintentionally damaged the special relationship within Britain and fed the dangerous tide of anti-Americanism by handling the Iraq crisis much less frankly and honestly than Bush himself. Britain is unlikely to support the U.S. in another Iraq-style intervention for a very long time; that may not matter overmuch since the U.S. is unlikely to embark on such a venture for a very long time. Still, it is fortunate for the survival of the special relationship that this rising anti-Americanism has coincided with a rising Euro-skepticism. It has greatly limited any damage.
This gloomy picture may have changed with the two referendums. Downing Street smoke signals suggest that Blair intends to exploit the crisis to reform the EU along free-market, Atlanticist, and pro-American lines. It would be typical Blairite day-dreaming, however, if the prime minister hoped to do this with purely European assistance. His reforms require major institutional changes as well as new policies. They would provoke fervent opposition from major players such as France, Spain, and Germany. All the European institutions, still controlled by federalists and Americo-skeptics, would resist them. His natural free-market allies in Eastern Europe lack the numbers and clout to ensure him success. And Blair’s own party would be ambivalent at best about such a campaign.
Blair can pull off this feat only with U.S. backing. Such American support could not be overt and Blair could not return from Washington boasting about it. That would be undiplomatic and maximize French and Europhiliac opposition. But Washington’s help would have to be as strong, consistent, and unremitting as its postwar aid through the Marshall Plan. Even then it is not guaranteed success.
If it fails, then Europe may end up swallowing and destroying the special relationship.
–John O’Sullivan, former adviser to Lady Thatcher, is the editor-at-large of National Review and is a member of Benador Associates.