The Strainful Relationship: Where’s the Beginning and the End?

Is worrying over Anglo-American relations no more than a curious pastime?

British prime minister David Cameron walks with American president Barack Obama across the South Lawn of the White House in Washington DC, July 20
British prime minister David Cameron walks with American president Barack Obama across the South Lawn of the White House in Washington DC, July 20 (White House/Pete Souza)

David Cameron, in The Wall Street Journal recently observed that the constant quibbling and worrying over the “special relationship” is a curious pastime among British observers, journalists and the man in the street. Cameron divides these worry merchants up into three camps which seem quite accurate and I admit to being, on occasion, guilty of all of them. However, as Sir Christopher Meyer, former ambassador to the United States, recently reminded viewers at the Royal United Services Insitute, the relationship with the United States is the biggest challenge that the British diplomatic service, and indeed, British policy faces.

Cameron, like his predecessors, has failed to say what this special relationship consists of apart from vague reference to a list of happy coincidences and events which seem to be now of questionable importance. Numbering among them are: a shared doctrine on trade (some of the time); somewhat frequent cooperation in international institutions and also outside of them. Apart from that it’s hard to think of anything meaningful or worth entertaining as anything other than a cultural token viz “standing shoulder to shoulder against fascism” and other well known extracts from your school history lessons. Common language and culture to a good degree also go a long way to make many see the United States as the natural closest friend that Britain’s got, and even vice versa.

Nevertheless, America and the United Kingdom are states in a world of states, each vying with varying success with weaker and stronger opponents to achieve a better share of resources, political capital, trade and that now evident but “old-fashioned” concept of honor. These form loosely the subject of national interest, something which William Hague, the current incumbent of the top office at Britain’s Foreign Office declared recently as the core of British foreign policy, something which hasn’t been done by any of his predecessors in some time. In the Blair years, foreign policy wasn’t about anything so “unenlightened” and selfish, but about a great focus on the ethical foreign policy concepts outlined in his 1998 Chicago speech. So perhaps one may think that the steely eyed Hague is returning some logic to the way Britain acts internationally. One hopes.

This would naturally influence the special relationship which has gone through some rough patches as of late, as other articles have pointed out. In fact, American relations with all states apart from its vassals in Southeast Asia have seen to take a knocking since Obama obtained office.

Since the beginning of his presidency, Barack Obama’s views on them certainly aren’t as rosy as those of his predecessor. Love him or hate him, Britons shouldn’t forget that George W. Bush liked Britain, or at least never seemed to convey otherwise. Obama however has shown a lot of ill feeling, including, as some noted, the return of a bust of Winston Churchill (a gift to the American people which stood in a position of honor in the White House) to the British embassy; a calculated and petty snub really. Another was his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton questioning the British claim to the Falkland Islands in a debacle which surrounded them recently. Perhaps this is due to the chip Obama may have on his shoulder about his grandfather being arrested as a Mau Mau terrorist in British Kenya in the 1950s. It is possible but does it qualify as cause for rudeness? Who knows.

But what does this matter? If the special relationship exists then it’s obvious why, if it doesn’t then the converse is true. This is the juncture where many Americans point out that the United States is the world’s hegemony; a mighty economic empire with the military force to safeguard said economy and the political clout to do well without the United Kingdom.

They are quite right but we must consider this in a greater depth. Britain, or England as its often mislabelled internationally, is a mere shadow of its former self whereas once it had sublime status in many respects equal to that of the United States today. Now however, it is bereft of any kind of real industry, its empire is gone and its economy relatively meager as a result. Why should the people of the Great Republic have to entertain any kind of alliance with a union which is ready to split apart and then surrender key elements of its government and society to a bloated European bureaucracy. Such a people can surely have neither honor nor faith in themselves, so why should any investor?

Myths, and also truths, concerning the deterioration of British society and various sacrifices to the growing Islamic immigrant proportion abound in the American media and continue to provide something of an apparent justification to dismiss any British assistance or cooperation out of hand. Does Britain deserve the United States as a security partner? Well, probably it does. Despite going through the mill thanks to external and internal events, usually at the hands of groups and individuals keen to neuter anything left of Britain’s power, it’s still a fairly robust economy with a governmental system which rarely witnesses unrest unlike some of its European equivalents. It’s also the only other state with what we can truly say is a global outlook, like that of the American people. The British are an international people, it says so in the 1998 Strategic Defense Review.

Some say that, because British soldiers and marines are fighting alongside American servicemen in Afghanistan and did so in Iraq, there is some moral obligation but considering that those same British servicemen are outranked in terms of equipment and resources by a huge degree, why should they be considered anything more than a slight addition to the American war machine? An addition which could be easily covered by forces from some other vassal or even American ones.

British observers point out the binding nature of shared problems which propel the two to cooperate in the first place. The threat of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism or whatever the enlightened Western media are calling it now, seems to say to many, like Tony Blair did that “we stand shoulder to shoulder” etc. But, as Sir Christopher pointed out, shared problems do mean shared interests and values. The United Kingdom and United States have, and often will, disagree on foreign policy decisions. The most famous was the Suez Crisis which officially brought the final end to the Britain’s global role in the pre-Thatcher era, but left the American taxpayer footing an even bigger bill. Then there was Harold Wilson’s determination to not become embroiled in the ill-fated Vietnam campaign. Later on, despite some support in materiel from the American military, some US senators conspired to take Britain to the UN on crimes of imperialism over the 1982 Falklands War.

There has always been disagreements, but usually there was something to smooth them over. Eisenhower remarked that forcing the British to end the Suez campaign was one of the biggest mistakes he’d ever made. Perhaps he recognized the destabilizing effect on the Middle East. Margaret Thatcher’s personal relationship with Ronald Reagan did much to mend any previous squabbles, and both Presidents Bill Clinton and Bush were fairly friendly, if not actual anglophiles. British politicians, at least those in real positions, usually realize what side their bread is buttered and seek to maintain the best relations possible with the world’s only superpower. However, will there be something in the immediate or near future to do this again, or are we seeing the cracks irreparably spread apart?

This is Churchill’s legacy, and he paid a lot in British blood and treasure to get it. Not content with suing for peace in 1941 and letting Mr Hitler carry on with what he was doing on the other side of the continent, Winston Churchill brought the Americans in and gave them all money and tools that Britain could muster without realizing that the Russians were already doing all the hard work. This shrew bit of politicking equates to taking everything one has and getting rid of it as fast as possible for the lowest possible price while expecting nothing in return but the pretence of salvation and a constant, whining, reminder of who allegedly did it. I digress.

In the Cold War, the alliance continued due to convenience. In the same way that the Nazis declared war on the Americans first, the war wasn’t doing American trade any good and in supplying copious amounts of weapons to the Allies, the unsinkable aircraft carrier in the North Sea; USS Great Britain, was a superb point of operations for the United States Air Force in striking against the Soviet Union. We can’t honestly believe in this century that a down to earth and sensible people like the Americans contributed thousands in blood and treasure to “defending Britain” (from an enemy that couldn’t launch a seaborn invasion if their swastika depended on it) and liberating Europe out of the goodness of their hearts? “The Great War for Civilization” and “saving you guys” did and does continue look cosy in the media though.

So, we see, the friendship is struck between Churchill and his counterpart stateside, but how can a friendship which became, for some reason, synonymous with a wartime alliance hope to continue to flourish sixty years on, as a commentator at The Wall Street Journal noted, when both men are now long deceased? (And at least, for Britain, the state is fundamentally different to how it was then.) Especially considering the extra dimension of Obama’s distrust of perfidious Albion.

The times, they are a changing though and Obama sensed upon his arrival a transition of American focus to the Southeast Asia region, while the other side of the special relationship continues to make odd bedfellows in Brussels. Who can rightly say what the future may pertain for the special relationship, or even if it exists at all. I wouldn’t like to speculate; on the risk of being labeled by the PM, but if it’s anything like the history of Anglo-American relations for the most part, it’ll be full of petty bickering, rivalry and subversion but that’s how it should be for rival states looking after their own interest.

Comments

  • Sir Christopher Meyer is a meddling individual who was best summed up by John Prescott. He’s a “red socked fop” who criticises others yet seems most happy to jump on the gravy train through writing books (how very inappropriate for a former public servant) and joining the board of profiteering companies. He loves being in the media and unlike other former ambassadors, he shows no dignity or respect for his former position.

  • You’re probably right in a summary of his character, although I’m reluctant to agree with John Prescott on anything, including the time and the differences betwixt black and white. However, I think Meyes was right in saying that the relationship between Britain and the US is perhaps the greatest challenge to the diplomatic service. It is afterall, where Britain’s wealth, power and direction come from and has formed an integral part of British foreign policy since 1945. He is also right in pointing out that Britain and the US thus have shared global interests and problems. So I standby what I’ve used Meyer for in the above article, despite whatever other things the ‘nasty man’ has done 😉

  • Leave a reply