As Britain’s relations with the European Union finally come to a climax, the United States can be grateful, once again, that contrary to the preferred outcome of most makers of American foreign policy, the U.S. national interest will be well served, by a lucky bounce. The United Kingdom is the fifth-largest economy in the world, and probably the fourth or fifth military power, and because of its immense contribution to Western civilization, it is one of the world’s most respected nationalities. Instead of being subsumed into the polyglot, bureaucratically mismanaged and socialistic Babel of the European Union, Britain is about to opt once again for its relationships across the broad oceans as a continuing sovereign country.
For decades, the State Department — and all the post-Eisenhower administrations except Nixon-Ford, Reagan, and Trump — have endlessly urged Britain into Europe. Under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, this was a plausible position for the purpose of putting metal up the backbone of wobbly European NATO allies and stiffening them against the neutralist tendencies of Germans prone to eastern Wagnerian forest murmurs, and Gaullist France, tempted by a chimerical, ludicrously implausible notion of guarantor, in place of the Anglo-Saxons, of Western European security.
The founding chancellor of the German Federal Republic, Konrad Adenauer, committed possibly the greatest act of statesmanship in any country since the Second World War when he declined Stalin’s offer of German reunification in exchange for German neutrality, and carried German opinion with him. In those times, British intimacy with the continental Western European NATO countries would certainly have firmed up the alliance, but it was academic, as the French president, General Charles de Gaulle, vetoed British entry anyway, twice.
When de Gaulle returned to office in 1958, the British prime minister, Harold MacMillan, expressed Britain’s desire to join the European Common Market, which then consisted of France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. De Gaulle said he would facilitate that if Britain assisted France in becoming a nuclear military power. MacMillan declined, citing American legal restraints on nuclear-technology transfers. President Eisenhower, de Gaulle’s wartime comrade, was in some sympathy with the French view that the Anglo-Americans should not withhold from their principal Western ally what the Soviet rival and prospective enemy already possessed. But Eisenhower was at the end of his term and was focused on trying to wind down the Cold War. He was unsuccessful in this and handed over to Kennedy and Johnson, who tried to take control of the British nuclear deterrent, as well as the nuclear force de Gaulle created by France’s own efforts, within the NATO framework. At the same time, and as they stumbled backwards into the Vietnam War, Kennedy and Johnson allowed the USSR to draw even with the United States in nuclear military capabilities, in the belief that this would persuade the Soviet leaders to negotiate arms control and a general de-escalation of tensions.
This was a mad concept, and it only encouraged the Kremlin leaders to achieve the nuclear superiority the U.S. had allowed itself to lose. The succeeding policy of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger restored what was euphemistically called “nuclear sufficiency” by building intercontinental missiles with ten independently targeted warheads, i.e., ten missiles in one. The succeeding Carter administration waffled but was unable to secure passage of the second Strategic Arms Limitation agreement and recoiled from cooperation after the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and the incoming Reagan administration sharply increased arms expenses and introduced the concept of the Strategic Defense Initiative, which aimed at a comprehensive anti-missile defense. The Soviet Union was dedicating almost half of its GDP to its arms budget, compared with 6 percent in the United States, and the entire Soviet challenge to the United States swiftly disintegrated, peacefully, thanks to the civility, if not the strategic cunning, of Mikhail Gorbachev.
Nixon recognized that the idea of a Western European political union could become a substantially anti-American concept, but the new British prime minister, Edward Heath, was an anti-American Europhile and did succeed in entering the European Common Market after the retirement of de Gaulle. By the time Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan became leaders of their countries ten years later, the Common Market was turning into an organization seeking “an ever-closer union,” i.e., political union. Both Thatcher and Reagan preferred to build Western security on the old Churchill-Roosevelt model of Anglo-American cooperation, and these leaders, with the collaboration of other allies, especially West Germany’s Helmut Kohl and Canada’s Brian Mulroney, and Pope John Paul II (a Pole who well knew the frailties, moral and otherwise, of the Soviet system) substantially induced the dissolution of the Soviet Bloc and the collapse of international Communism.
There was no longer the slightest justification for the United States trying to push Britain into a politically unified Europe where Anglo-American relations would be subsumed into the trackless complexities of Brussels’ factionalized pan-European relations with the U.S. Thatcher was pushed out by her own Conservative party for being reluctant about Euro-integration, although she had restored Britain from an economically sluggish and demoralized condition and was the first British prime minister to win three consecutive full-term general elections in 150 years. President Bush, Secretary of State James Baker, and the fluently robotic U.S. ambassador in London, Raymond Seitz, upheld the outdated American policy of urging Britain to take the veil of European political assimilation and anonymity. Western Europe unthreatened by an overwhelming Russian military presence in Central Europe became much less accommodating of American perspectives in the world, and as President Trump has asserted, NATO has become a ragged collection of countries that want an American military guarantee but, for the most part, are unwilling to pay anything for it.
Europe itself is far too socialistic and highly taxed — and for notorious historic reasons is much too afraid of working-class and agrarian unrest — to have a seriously free and competitive market economy. Yet President Obama mindlessly urged Britain into Euro-integration. President Trump had no such illusions, and at his first meeting with outgoing British prime minister Theresa May, he said, “A strong and independent Britain is a blessing to the world.” He also cautioned Mrs. May about trying to leave and remain at the same time. She straddled and was dumped by both sides. But the new British leader is almost certain to be the flamboyant former London mayor Boris Johnson, a pro-American leaver (born in New York City) who will bring the British Conservatives back to where Thatcher left them. A Johnson–Trump relationship could, in some respects and with much-evolved styles, re-create the immensely successful cooperation of the Roosevelt–Churchill alliance that won the Second World War and the Reagan–Thatcher alliance that won the Cold War.
It is a little like the American experience with Egypt, where the 800-pound gorilla in the room for 75 years was the Muslim Brotherhood, an extreme Islamist organization (despite the bland reassurances of the thoroughly misguided former CIA director John Brennan). The wishful and naïve promotion of democracy everywhere in the world under George W. Bush, on the theory that democracies don’t start wars, brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt, but it so completely misplayed its hand that it was sent packing by the army, which has ruled Egypt for all but one year since 1952. By dumb luck, and to the consternation of Bush, Obama, and John McCain, America was saved from the catastrophe of Islamist rule in Egypt. This would have been even more dangerous than the Islamist theocracy President Carter helped install in Iran in 1978, which has plagued the entire Middle East ever since. Neither the State Department nor any Democratic administration since Truman’s has grasped and advanced the American strategic interest consistently. If God isn’t blessing America, who is?