Tony Blair visits the White House today for consultations on everything from Iraq to aid for Africa to global warming. Blair has long argued that while a common European policy is years away, partnership with Washington can amplify British influence and correct the excesses of President George W. Bush’s neoconservative impulses.
The Anglo-American partnership is longstanding. Throughout the Cold War, U.S. presidents viewed Great Britain as “America’s closest ally.” Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt sat side by side during World War II; Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan kept a unified front during the Soviet Union’s last gasps. Thatcher ensured that George H.W. Bush did not go wobbly after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Tony Blair and George W. Bush forged a tight bond. Speaking to a joint session of Congress nine days later, Bush declared, “America has no truer friend than Great Britain.” Members rose to give Blair a standing ovation. As Baghdad fell, Bush repeated, “America has no finer ally than the United Kingdom, and no finer friend than the prime minister.”
But personal relationships make ephemeral coalitions. Permanent alliances require trust, common values, and shared strategic priorities. Cooperation in Iraq has become the symbol of Anglo-American relations. While both Bush and Blair were determined to oust Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, their friendship has not extended to their subordinates. Their bureaucracies increasingly distrust each other.
The bilateral tension involves both trust and values. The British media glorified as a conscientious whistle-blower a 29-year-old junior official who exposed an intelligence gathering at the United Nations. While lawyers and commentators might debate the merits of her decision, it nevertheless inflicted a debilitating wound on American trust in the British civil service, a lesion into which former cabinet official Clare Short rubbed salt. At the root of these issues of trust is a growing clash in values.
Bush is serious about democracy in the Middle East, a position the British foreign-policy establishment finds both dangerous and naïve. In the heart of Baghdad’s Green Zone, American and British occupation officials often conducted opposite policies from the same office. To Americans, success in Iraq is a constitutional republic. To their British counterparts, a benign autocracy like Egypt’s is preferable.
U.S. and British officials also sparred over Islamist militias. Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer, for example, sought a no-nonsense approach to such groups, while British forces empowered them for the sake of tranquility. Basra is far more peaceful than Baghdad, but posters of Ayatollah Khomeini hang in the University of Basra and militant gangs impose Islamist social mores. To British diplomats, stability trumped democracy.
Sir Jeremy Greenstock sputtered indignant at suggestions of intra-palace disputes. But his personal assistant argued in print that Washington initiated the war for both oil and Israel, and lambasted Bush policy as “fantasy.” Sir Jeremy’s decision to consult on a letter signed by 52 former British diplomats attacking the Bush-Blair project in Iraq further eroded trans-Atlantic trust.
British officials counter that the White House has been ungrateful. Blair was an obedient poodle, but Bush refused to throw him a bone. Blair’s cooperation on Iraq, they say, has not translated into American acquiescence to the British position on everything from the Palestinian-Israeli dispute to global warming. Such resentment reflects the clash between British cynicism and Bush’s idealism. Bush’s rhetoric may repulse many British elites, but it is a sincere reflection of belief: Without exception, terrorists and their supporters are evil. This might be a scary notion in sheltered London, but not so in New York and Washington or, after the bombing of a Bali discotheque, Australia.
Howard was in Washington when terrorists attacked the Pentagon. The Bali bombing a year later cemented meetings of the mind. It was no coincidence that Howard echoed Bush verbiage when he declared, “For the rest of Australian history, 12 October 2002 will be counted as a day on which evil struck.”
The common experience has permeated down through the bureaucracy. When British officials visit their American counterparts, the atmosphere is professional and guarded. U.S. policymakers fear the inevitable leaks to British broadsheets. But when Australians visit Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon, staffers let down their guard. The ease of interaction between Americans and their Australian counterparts is also one of culture: Both countries have an immigrant culture; both eschew the class distinctions that so many Eton and Oxford-educated British officials embrace. While Britain perfects nanny-state political correctness and closed-circuit televisions on every street corner, Australians and Americans emphasize small government and liberty. Personal relationships have thrived. Outside the notice of the European elite, senior Australian and American officials annually meet to debate, discuss, and coordinate policy in the Australian-American Leader Dialogue.
London may feel that Washington does not appreciate its sacrifice. Labour lost several dozen seats because of Blair’s embrace of Bush. Howard committed far fewer troops to Iraq, but he has put Australians in harms way. There have been at least four attacks on the Australian embassy in Baghdad.
Regardless, while Iraq may loom large for British policymakers, for their American counterparts it has never been the sum of relations. Too many other disputes interfere. While Iran is part of the “Axis of Evil” for Bush and an “outpost of tyranny” for Condoleezza Rice, it has become destination of choice for Jack Straw and Prince Charles. While British intellectuals ostracize Israel, both Americans and Australians support the Jewish state’s intolerance for terror.
The Anglo-American gap has grown wider over Asia. British officials see commercial opportunity in China’s rise; many support lifting the European Union arms embargo. American and Australian planners, meanwhile, worry increasingly that they will face a People’s Liberation Army equipped with European weaponry. Such anxieties predate Bush. Howard supported former President Bill Clinton’s decision to dispatch a carrier group to the Taiwan Strait in 1996 in response to Chinese provocations. Nor is China the only regional threat. A nuclear North Korea might be an abstract problem in Whitehall, but for both Australia and the United States its threat is direct.
European security is the result of a half-century of Anglo-American partnership. But ironically, its success is now driving the alliance apart. Ten Downing Street and the White House may trumpet partnership, but both countries have different agendas and goals. The Anglo-American partnership is alive and well–but America’s closest ally? She’s down under.
–Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official, is editor of the Middle East Quarterly.