Once again — the fifth time in recent years, by my count — the so-called Anglo-American special relationship is being dismissed as a self-destructive illusion (self-destructive for Britain, that is) by the usual geostrategic experts. Mostly it is Brits who go in for this hand-wringing, generally those who want their country to submerge itself constitutionally in a European federal state and who see a close friendship with America as an irritating obstacle to that end. Occasionally, however, the odd American confirms British fears that the relationship is one in which London makes all the sacrifices and Washington gets all the gains.
In March of last year, for instance, the Daily Telegraph confirmed its readers’ most masochistic fears when it reported that an anonymous State Department official had dismissed not just the relationship but Britain along with it: “There’s nothing special about Britain,” he fulminated. “You’re just the same as the other 190 countries in the world. You shouldn’t expect special treatment.”
Naturally I wondered if this diplomat was the same State Department official who, in 2006, had publicly dismissed the special relationship as a “myth” and “one-sided,” complaining that President Bush had given Prime Minister Blair very little in return for British support over Iraq. This was one Kendall Myers, who, in June 2009, was revealed to have a special relationship of his very own: He was “Agent 202” of the Cuban intelligence service, and had, for 30 years, spied for Castro because he strongly disapproved of America. So there’s a kind of logic in his contempt for a close American ally and his wish to fracture the link with Britain.
This time around, however, the critics of the special relationship are more numerous and more varied. Also, they seemingly have more to chew on. Stories have filtered out of Washington that President Obama has no particular affection for the Brits, who, as colonists, once oppressed his family in Kenya. A sinister significance is placed upon his returning a bust of Churchill that George W. Bush had placed in the Oval Office. And in recent days the U.S. has somewhat ostentatiously declared its neutrality between Britain and Argentina over the disputed Falkland Islands. It all adds up.
Or does it? These offenses are of very different orders of magnitude. Frankly, as a loyal subject of Her Majesty, I find the concerns expressed by some Brits (including good friends) over such matters as the return of the Churchill bust to be silly and demeaning. Even if it really was to reflect a disdain for Churchill and his countrymen — and I can think of ten other reasons why Obama might want to return the bust — what of it? That disdain would reflect badly on the president rather than on Churchill. And whatever happened to the stiff upper lip? Unless the islanders have turned into a pack of huffy adolescent girls, they could simply shrug their shoulders at his folly and determine not to trust his judgment on matters of greater importance.
As for Britain’s colonial history, it’s nothing new that sheltered Ivy League graduates tend to be as reflexively anti-imperialist as . . . well, as Cuban intelligence agents. If the president shares this elite prejudice (and he may not), he should reflect on the fact — very fairly recounted in his autobiography — that his grandfather, who served the British colonists as a cook in their army, actually admired them. He was one example among millions (two and a half million Indians who volunteered to fight for Britain in World War II among them) who knew that, with all its flaws, British rule was infinitely better for its subjects than the slavery, endemic war, and oppressive misrule that preceded it. The problem for Britain is not that Obama regards its imperial history as shameful but that too many Brits take the same misguided and disabling view.
Washington’s intervention in the Falklands dispute, however, is really serious and even ominous. Britain is a close ally; its troops are fighting alongside G.I.s in Afghanistan; and it has both international law and the Falkland Islanders on its side in the dispute with Argentina. A still greater consideration is that almost 300 British servicemen lost their lives recovering the islands in recent memory. Supporting London or, if that is too bold a stance, simply remaining silent ought to be a no-brainer. Instead, the secretary of state has declared U.S. neutrality and mediation in ringing tones: “Now, we cannot make either one do so [i.e., negotiate], but we think it is the right way to proceed. So we will be saying this publicly, as I have been, and we will continue to encourage exactly the kind of discussion across the table that needs to take place.”
Since the British have no intention of negotiating away their own territory, this is support for Argentina posing as neutrality. But since the Falklands are armed to the teeth, it offers no real help to Buenos Aires. So it may annoy the Brits today, but it will irritate the Argentinians even more tomorrow. It is hard to make sense of such diplomacy except as a form of gesture politics. It has the faint flavor of anti-colonial disapproval (though one British wag noted that the distance between Britain and the Falklands was almost identical to that between Obama’s birthplace in Hawaii and the U.S. mainland). It signals a preference for Argentina and Latin America over a traditional Western ally. And it is likely rooted in the cynical calculation that the Brits will get over it when American mediation quietly fails.
All these gestures, however, point in the same direction: a wish to distance the U.S. from Britain in international politics and a willingness to take risks in doing so. Several ideological currents feed this tendency. If you are a left-liberal averse to U.S. intervention abroad, you probably won’t look kindly on a country that is America’s most dependable ally in such ventures. State Department analysts (even those not in the pay of Cuba) have long shared the belief of Euro-federalists that the special relationship is an obstacle to Britain’s inevitable (and desirable) absorption by a unified Europe. Foreign-policy “realists” have a visceral dislike of the Anglophile nostalgia that in their view explains the special relationship and distorts hard-headed calculations of national interest. (Some realists can get very emotional about this.) And then there are the anti-imperialists, both modern academic and traditional Yankee.
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.