Britain’s new prime minister, Gordon Brown, flies into Washington this week — proceeded by a rash of reports in the British media that the Anglo-American “special relationship” is finally over. It had its last hurrah with Bush and Blair. London will now distance itself from Washington.
Well, I wish I had pound or a euro or even a dollar for every time a report appears that the “special relationship” is at long last over. And on this occasion my reaction is quite literally “déjà vu all over again.”
Since I first began writing about such matters, there have been two previous occasions when London or Washington seriously thought of downgrading the alliance to or even below the (still important) level of, say, Washington’s relationship with Paris or Berlin.
The first occasion was in the early 1970s when Prime Minister Edward Heath, having secured Britain’s membership of the European Community, made plain to the Nixon administration that in future Britain would act more closely with France and Germany than with the U.S.
With OPEC quadrupling its oil prices and Arab countries threatening an oil boycott over Israel at the time, this looked like a shrewd combination of European idealism and hard-headed national interest.
In fact it was foolish self-deception. Heath’s posturing took place as a series of geopolitical threats to Britain (and Europe) were just beginning to reveal the value and indeed necessity of the American link: the installation of Soviet SS-20 missiles in Eastern Europe, terrorism, crises in southern Africa, the rise of the Soviet Navy, OPEC-induced stagflation worldwide, the invasion of Afghanistan, etc., etc. It was soon plain that Europe could not deal with these crises without U.S. help and indeed leadership.
All of Heath’s more sensible successors — Harold Wilson, James Callaghan, and Margaret Thatcher — recognized and acted upon that reality. Their main problem in the late 1970s was the poor quality of American leadership under Jimmy Carter. But when Ronald Reagan replaced Carter in the White House and, in particular, when he revived the special relationship in his great partnership with Mrs. Thatcher, these various crises were resolved with surprising speed.
Indeed, they were resolved triumphantly. The Soviet Union collapsed, the Cold War ended, the third world disintegrated, a new structure of world power built on global markets and democratic ideas was created, and, for a moment, we seemed to be living in a peaceful and prosperous world.
So, naturally, reports again began to appear that the special relationship would now finally be mothballed.
This time, however, the reports originated in Washington. Anxious to distinguish themselves from the Reagan administration, the new Bush team let it be known that they intended to place greater reliance on Germany than on Britain in their alliance planning. This switch was justified on the grand strategic theory that in the new post-Cold-War world of globalization, geo-economics was more important than geo-politics. Since Germany then enjoyed a larger and stronger economy than Britain, it seemed to follow that Germany should be Washington’s premier European partner.
This policy enjoyed one highly important success: the reunification of Germany. That was the biggest problem facing the Bush administration in its first two years. Working closely with Chancellor Kohl was essential to the success of U.S. policy.
And largely because of Soviet weakness, success came quickly. The foundations of a new and stable Europe were established. At that point the value of the “tilt” to Germany began to fall since it was clear that most foreign challenges to the U.S. would come in future from outside Europe.
Right on cue, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
Germany was very little use to Washington in the first Gulf War despite its large economy. It had a land-locked army, a constitution that forbade intervention abroad, and a pacifist national sensibility. What Washington needed was allies with armies, intelligence services, strategic mobility, and a tradition of upholding international order.
France met those criteria — and joined in the liberation of Kuwait — but to a far lesser extent than the United Kingdom.
At times the British were even more willing to intervene than Washington. It was over Kuwait that Thatcher issued her famous encouragement: “This is no time to go wobbly, George.” Her New Labor successor, Tony Blair, similarly pressed a reluctant President Clinton to send U.S. ground troops into action over Kosovo. Success in both endeavors restored relations. The special relationship was firmly reestablished.
Its present decline in popular favor is due largely to Blair’s conduct of British policy over Iraq which is seen (unfairly) as subservient to President Bush, (arguably) as deceitful, (reasonably) as unsuccessful, and (correctly) as having failed to justify the intervention in terms of specifically British interests and duties.
With Blair’s departure, these objections will likely fade. Gordon Brown will want to cut a world statesmanlike figure both in Washington and in the eyes of Middle England. He will also be determined to ensure that neither Germany’s Angela Merkel nor France’s Nicholas Sarkozy, both more pro-American than their predecessors, replace him as America’s best friend in Europe. And since European members of NATO are failing to help in Afghanistan where British troops are fighting and dying in large numbers, Brown will have a further good reason for feeling close to the Americans.
So the special relationship will almost certainly recover from its recent wobbles.
Yet the special relationship has powerful long-term enemies.
Other European states resent the special clout and particular advantages they believe it gives Britain in world politics. France, for instance, regularly seeks to bring Echelon, the worldwide electronic eavesdropping system operated by the U.S., Britain, and other Anglosphere countries, under international supervision. Paris, Berlin, and other capitals see Echelon as ultimately incompatible with a common European defense, intelligence, and foreign-policy system.
Those British politicians in all major parties who want the U.K. to commit itself to a European federal state believe the special relationship gives London delusions of grandeur that obstruct the necessary surrender of sovereignty.
The U.S. State Department also dislikes it as an obstacle to Britain’s full absorption in the European Union. Foggy Bottom thinks an unqualified British commitment to Euro-political integration would make Europe more pro-American — the “Trojan Horse for America” theory. In reality it is far more likely to make Britain more anti-American as it absorbs the ethos of European politics.
Left-wingers dislike the closeness to capitalist America it carries.
Some Tories blame it for Britain’s postwar retreat from world power (and its replacement as world superpower by the U.S) starting at Suez.
And foreign-policy “realists” deplore it as a relationship built on sentimentality — something which, according to the best international-relations theory, should not exist.
Almost all these groups want London to replace the U.S. with the EU as Britain’s closest ally. The occasional exaggerated reports of its death reflect in part their hopes and influence.
How then does the special relationship manage repeatedly to survive as an important factor in foreign affairs? It is rooted in three enduring features:
First, Britain and the U.S. (and such countries as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and India) share a common language, culture, and legal and political traditions. As a result they tend to see the world in much the same way. The so-called “Anglosphere” countries believe in a liberal international order — free trade, free capital movements, global consultative institutions, and international law — and identify the same threats to it.
Second, both countries have been historically more prepared than other powers use military force to uphold a liberal international order (and their own interests) against fundamental attacks.
Third, since 1941 Britain and the U.S. (and, again, countries such as Australia, Canada, etc.) have developed habits and practices of mutual cooperation in fields as various as intelligence, military affairs, cultural transmission, peacekeeping, and international institution-building to a very high degree.
So dense and overlapping are the established links of cooperation between these countries, as James C. Bennett argues in The Anglosphere Challenge, that they form a “network civilization” of nations that increasingly think, act and even develop alike. They link not only governments, but also private sector bodies and ordinary citizens. Trade, investment, and migration patterns, for instance, are far closer between the countries of the Anglosphere than between them and third parties. And since the Second World War the core of this network civilization has been the special relationship.
It is a practical relationship that benefits both sides. Echelon has already been mentioned. More generally, Sir John Scarlett, the head of MI6, recently told a British parliamentary committee: “The U.K. agencies’ long-developed relationships with U.S. intelligence agencies give them vital access to U.S. intelligence and resources. It is neither practical, desirable, nor is it in the national interest, for U.K. agencies to carry out [counter-terrorism] work independently of the U.S. effort.”
Intelligence sharing is a very significant indicator of alliance closeness because of its secret nature. But it is merely one element in a much broader defense relationship. Both the British armed forces and the British defense industry benefit greatly from their privileged relationship with more technically advanced partners in the U.S. It helps explain why Britain is the single most important military power in Europe despite moderate and falling levels of defense expenditure.
From London’s perspective, then, the special relationship has practical advantages that no other alliance or set of alliances could replicate. It would be strategic self-mutilation to abandon it. From an American perspective Washington gets a dependable ally with high diplomatic and military skills and worldwide influence.
When Peter Rodman, a distinguished Kissingerian realist who has served in high foreign-policy positions in every Republican administration since 1968, was asked about the latest reports of a broken special relationship, he wondered jokingly if they had been planted by the Wilhelmstrasse or the Quai D’Orsay since “every other European nation is jealous of how Britain can work both sides of the Atlantic to increase its world influence.”
Nonetheless, it’s déjà vu all over again. Talk of a rupture between Washington and London has burst forth for the third time. It is all very dramatic — and all seemingly prompted by two events.
The first was a speech by Douglas Alexander, a ministerial confidante of the Gordon Brown, now in the Cabinet overseeing “international development.” The second was the appointment of Mark Malloch Brown, formerly Kofi Annan’s deputy at the United Nations, to the number two spot at the foreign office where he will be responsible for Asia, Africa, and the third world — but not for relations with the U.S.
Neither event was exactly earth-shaking. Most of the Alexander speech was a conventional argument for more and better-designed foreign aid. But it contained one or two phrases — notably a preference for “multilateralism over “unilateralism” — that were interpreted as signaling that London was distancing itself from Blair’s previous closeness to Bush. And the Malloch Brown appointment was said to annoy Washington because in his old U.N. job he was a strong critic of U.S policy.
Malloch Brown sought to dampen down Washington’s suspicions by giving an interview to the Daily Telegraph in which he praised Secretary Condi Rice and the new “soft power” direction of American policy. Being no diplomat, however, he made matters worse by saying — incautiously but in context justifiably — that as Iraq receded into the background, London and Washington would no longer be “joined at the hip” on policy. Brown then had to make public statements re-affirming that his government would continue to work closely with Washington as Blair had done.
Something interesting — and arguably important — is happening here.
It is not, however, the collapse of the special relationship. Brown wants to maintain this as a practical reality while reducing the rhetorical volume of support for it. Given that his predecessor had inadvertently encouraged anti-Americanism in the U.K. by seeming to subject British policy to U.S. interests, Brown will stress the national interest. This new approach is sensible and may even help to reverse the growth of anti-Americanism in Britain. Alarm bells should ring in the White House only if Brown takes practical steps, for instance, to commit Britain still further to a European defense policy outside NATO.
Nor is the Brown government retreating from foreign interventionism. A passage in the Alexander speech was the pure milk of the Bush doctrine and/or of Blair’s 1998 speech to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations:
“It can be right, when certain conditions are met, to intervene in the affairs of countries to prevent genocide, crimes against humanity, humanitarian suffering or threats to democracy. We believe that our collective responsibility to protect individuals transcends the right of nations to absolute sovereignty.”
Nor, finally, is Brown’s endorsement (via Alexander) of “multilateralism” a break with the Bush-Blair era. Bush and Blair both preached multilateralism repeatedly in recent years. Both sought and obtained allies. Both justified their interventions in Kosovo and Iraq by reference to U.N. resolutions. And what little difference there was between the governments has diminished further since the 2004 elections. Malloch Brown was surely right when he said in his Telegraph interview that the current U.S. administration is moving away from the harder neoconservative versions of the Bush doctrine and towards ideas of soft power and multilateralism under Secretary Condi Rice. With the possible exception of Iran, it is currently hard to imagine a situation in which the U.S. would break with London and other European allies in order to mount a unilateral military intervention.
Here, finally, comes the potential division — a division within governments as much as between London and Washington. If there were a breach between Anglo-American allies on Iran or anything else, the sticking-point would almost certainly be whether an intervention had the formal support of the U.N. Security Council.
What divides Blair and Bush from Malloch Brown and Douglas Alexander (and perhaps Brown) is that the first two believed that if the international community had discovered and condemned genocide, humanitarian suffering etc., then it really ought to do something about it. If the U.N. failed to act, perhaps because it was hobbled by a Russian veto, they believed nation states were justified in enforcing the international laws that were being broken or ignored. And if those nation-states felt that their basic interests were being threatened by breaches of international law, then they were doubly justified in intervening. That kind of muscular multilateralism reflected the traditional willingness of the Anglosphere countries to uphold liberal international order (and their interests) against fundamental attack.
Malloch Brown and Alexander are much more respectful of international bodies which they believe enjoy a superior legitimacy to nation-states in the post-Cold War-world order. So are many U.S. diplomats and officials. Alexander in his speech declared that the U.N. enjoyed “unparalleled legitimacy” in world affairs. Malloch Brown as a former U.N. official supported Kofi Annan’s claim that the Kosovo war was illegitimate because it lacked a U.N. endorsement. Both men are members of the new class of international lawyers, agency officials and NGO officers — known as “Tranzis” or transnational progressives — who staff transnational agencies and largely dictate the international political agenda. Their general outlook is to regard nation-states as subordinate to international bodies (which in theory represent the conscience of the world.) They tend to believe that nation-states are entitled to use military force either for humanitarian or for strategic reasons only if they have the explicit endorsement of the U.N.
If you want to know the likely results of such a principle, ask the people of Darfur and Rwanda. Of course, you’ll need a spiritualist medium if you expect a reply. The United Nations can be a very useful instrument of diplomacy, moral suasion, and — when the Permanent Five on the Security Council are agreed — humanitarian intervention and peacekeeping. But it cannot be a legal and moral arbiter in world affairs. Nation-states, guided by the precedent of international law, remain the main players. The nations of the Anglosphere, in particular Britain and America, have a long track record of using their power and influence wisely to uphold a decent world order. They generally act in common. And at some point in the next few years they will likely be faced with a crisis in which they judge intervention to be necessary but know that it would be vetoed in the U.N. Security Council.
We can make a good guess which course Bush would choose. Ditto Malloch Brown and Alexander. Gordon Brown, though, remains an enigma. And so, for obvious reasons, does the next U.S. president. But the likelihood, if history is a guide, is that both governments will end up on the same side.
– John O’Sullivan is the editor-at-large of National Review and author of The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister. Portions of this piece have already appeared in print and are reprinted with permission.