The former u.s. ambassador to the Court of St. James, Ray Seitz, recalls in his autobiography preparations for President Bill Clinton’s first meeting with Britain’s then-prime minister, John Major. Sitting in the Oval Office, the president was reminded by one of his aides to mention the magic phrase “special relationship.” “Oh yes,” said Clinton. “How could I forget?” And he burst out laughing.
The events of September 11 cast a different light on this joke, as they did on the frivolity of the rest of the Clinton years. Ten days after al Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington, President George W. Bush told Congress that America had “no truer friend than Great Britain.” This was more than a gracious compliment to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was listening in the gallery. Americans, including America’s commander in chief, were moved by London’s response to the attacks on the United States. Everyone (bar Saddam Hussein) had condemned the loss of civilian life. But whereas, for example, the Belgian foreign minister — acting as president of the European Union — was soon talking of “limits to [eu-U.S.] solidarity,” Blair’s anger was unmistakable and his robustness unwavering. The British prime minister spoke of “barbarism” and “shame for all eternity. . . . Are we at war with the people who committed this terrible atrocity? Absolutely.”
Blair’s sentiments were palpably sincere. But they also reflected his intuitive grasp of Britain’s national mood: The truth is that the nation, as a whole, clearly did exhibit far stronger ties of sympathetic solidarity with America than did anyone else. According to a Daily Telegraph/Gallup poll taken in early October, 70 percent of Britons supported military action against Afghanistan: They did so even if it meant large numbers of Afghan civilian casualties and despite the risk of substantial numbers of British troops being killed or wounded. So when the following month a Newsweek poll asked Americans whether particular countries had done enough to support the U.S. during the crisis, Britain earned the highest approval ratings. Blair’s own popularity in the United States soared to levels rarely if ever enjoyed by a foreign statesman. Equally significant, American conservatives previously unenamored with the British prime minister were suddenly effusive with praise.
All of which was highly gratifying to enthusiasts of the Anglo-American “special relationship” — a somewhat embattled political minority on both sides of the Atlantic in recent years. But, viewed objectively, the practical results of the revivified “special relationship” have turned out to be meager, in some ways plain disappointing.
Capabilities and will
If america’s european allies only France and Britain possessed a significant capacity to assist in the war on terrorism, and only Britain had the will. A British task force was accordingly deployed in the Gulf; British submarines fired Tomahawks against Taliban targets on two occasions. Within Afghanistan, members of Britain’s sas regiment — without doubt the most skilled special service forces in the world — performed taxing and dangerous tasks with great success, notably in attacking the al Qaeda training camp outside Kandahar and in hand-to-hand fighting in the Tora Bora region. British forces are still involved in mopping-up operations against the enemy.
The pity is that from first to last these exploits have mattered little in the overall outcome. This has been America’s war, and the U.S. has fought it according to its own battle plan and almost entirely with its own resources. The military cooperation of the Central Asian states of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan — frontline but hardly first-rate powers — probably mattered more at the crucial stages than that of Britain. Moreover, the significance of the 200 or so British soldiers sent to fight by America’s side in Afghanistan is put into some perspective by the British Foreign Office’s estimate that about the same number of British citizens were engaged on the side of al Qaeda. (Over the years, successive British governments have contributed more to fueling Islamic extremism by giving safe haven to known troublemakers than the British have yet to contribute to the war on terrorism.)
Tony Blair himself would doubtless have liked to do more to help, but Britain simply lacked the military resources. The reasons are common knowledge. Since the end of the Cold War, America’s technical superiority on the battlefield has advanced by leaps and bounds beyond that of its allies. Essentially rooted in the defense buildup of the Reagan years, this revolution in military affairs occurred largely despite — rather than because of — political decision making during the Bush (senior) and Clinton administrations. Like the Americans, the British and other European allies spent the 1990s giving ever-higher priority to welfare over weaponry, cutting back defense spending accordingly. But unlike the United States, the European countries lacked either the economic dynamism or the scientific base to compensate for reduced military budgets with parallel technological advance.
In Britain, successive governments presided over a three-stage weakening of the defense effort. First, there was a substantial cutback in the total defense budget, initiated in the last days of Margaret Thatcher and then pursued with increasing zeal by the Major and Blair governments: From 1992 to 2000, uk defense spending fell (in constant 2000 U.S. dollars) from $51.2 billion to $34.5 billion. Moreover, all three armed services remain weakened because of untackled difficulties in recruitment and retention.
Second, there has been an accompanying overstretch of resources. The lack of strategic clarity that characterized the 1990s throughout the Western world led in Britain to a succession of ill-thought-out ad hoc deployments from Africa to the Balkans. Significantly, in his Foreword to the latest Ministry of Defense Performance Report, Britain’s defense secretary, Geoff Hoon, placed the emphasis on rebuilding the Sierra Leone army, overflying Iraq, peacekeeping in the Balkans, support for the police in Northern Ireland, and a string of basically civilian roles — helping control foot and mouth disease, coping with floods, strike-breaking, and fishery protection. These more or less worthy tasks hardly accord — excepting patrols over Iraq — with any recognizable list of strategic priorities.
The government now, in fact, regards British forces mainly as agents of “defense diplomacy,” as the in-vogue phrase has it. But whereas a certain vagueness about ends and means can be a mark of diplomatic virtuosity, it is a severe drawback when troops are deployed on the ground. So, for example, British forces were committed in January to provide the core of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan under an unclear mandate with unspecified tasks in uncertain political conditions. (It has also been revealed from leaked memoranda that the Foreign Office was pressing much the same in Macedonia.)
Third, mainly because of Blair’s own personal obsession with matters European — on which more later — Britain’s military procurement is failing to deliver the right equipment to allow British forces to perform effectively. There is no way that Britain, any more than other European countries, can compete with the U.S. in weapons development. Last year, for example, the U.S. spent 10 times Britain’s budget on research and technology. The results of this trend were made embarrassingly clear during the 1999 Kosovo campaign, when British aircraft were for most of the time simply unable to strike their targets. Britain’s role was limited mainly to boosting American morale and reinforcing the legitimacy of the operation. Only after the war was won could British troops on the ground make a significant contribution to enforcing the peace.
Britain’s inability to match the government’s and the nation’s sympathies with practical military assistance to its U.S. ally during the first phase of the war on terror calls into question what the “special relationship” can offer either country. The question is unlikely to be answered — and it may actually become more pressing — during the second phase: tackling rogue states developing weapons of mass destruction. Only Britain can be relied upon, it seems, to support and lend modestly useful assistance in any war against Iraq. But again the disparity between Britain’s goodwill and Britain’s contribution in prosecution of America’s global anti-terrorist strategy will become glaringly apparent.
Britain’s political tangle
Oddly enough, it is Tony Blair’s political personality that has helped bring matters to a head. Blair himself, as even his admirers would privately admit, is something of a chameleon. In contemporary British politics this is a strength, as New Labour’s fortunes bear out. The trouble is that adapting to one’s environment creates all but insuperable problems when it comes to trying to change it. Blair can be as imperious as Margaret Thatcher on the world stage or as comfortably accessible as everybody’s next-door neighbor at home. He can at alternate moments give the impression of a passionate free-market Atlanticist and of a corporatist European social democrat.
Blair has inherited an agenda from his political opponents, in particular from the Thatcherite 1980s, that he can neither abandon nor acknowledge. He has a large parliamentary majority. But, as increasingly frequent attacks by his party critics demonstrate, he is not a free political agent. He is anxious about being exposed as a weak international leader by a Conservative Party that, though far behind in the polls, is led by an ex-soldier and something of a defense buff in Iain Duncan Smith. Yet the prime minister cannot forget that he is also the leader of a Labour Party that is home to large reserves of hostility to America and endemically prone under pressure to express its latent distaste for exertions of Western power. Initially, it seemed that Blair would manage without too much difficulty to square all these circles. In particular, he was able to contain party dissent by media skills, by unleashing the whips, and, above all, by assuring the die-hards that as each new unpalatable American military initiative emerges it would be “thus far and no farther.”
Left-wing Labour mps were accordingly told that Britain would back American strikes against Afghanistan, but under no circumstances strikes against Iraq; and they grudgingly agreed. Just a few months on, however, it emerged that Blair was ready to back attacks on Saddam as well. It is turning out to be very much the same story over ballistic missile defense (bmd). The previous Labour foreign secretary, Robin Cook, was allowed by Downing Street to make highly critical remarks about bmd. So initially was his successor, Jack Straw. But a few months later Straw was abruptly instructed by Downing Street to reverse his opposition.
All of which is understandably reassuring to the many Americans who look at Blair’s performance and conclude that, come what may, he will always adjust his approach under American pressure. Yet these American optimists overlook two pertinent facts. First, Blair has been able to bring the Labour Party — and the Labour Cabinet — with him thus far only because America has been so fortunate. (Even superpowers need luck.) Any number of military setbacks could have occurred in the course of the Afghanistan campaign; they may still emerge as new campaigns are fought. The possibilities of splits in American political opinion, including most dangerously splits in the Bush administration, are always real. Where would Blair’s approach of alternately mollifying his domestic critics and then presenting them with faits accomplis be then? Bandwagoning in good times is no guarantee against wobbles in bad.
Second, Blair himself lacks both the temperament and the ideology to take on entrenched obstacles that prevent Britain’s playing a more active and imaginative role as the (albeit junior) partner in America’s broader global mission. These roadblocks stand in locations that some outside observers of the British scene might find surprising.
Institutional obstacles to cooperation
One such is the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The fco, like other long-established bureaucracies, has its own habits, prejudices, and quirks that do not always conform to the criteria of objective external analysis. No one, for example, really understands why Foreign Office thinking was so pro-Serb in the wars in the former Yugoslavia that it encouraged British ministers and officials to consort with war criminals and created what John Major termed “the most worrying Anglo-American rift since Suez.” Similarly, one can only speculate about why in present conditions British diplomacy is still, after decades of relentless and unsuccessful Arabism, so wedded to advancing the interests of Israel’s Middle Eastern enemies.
Yet it is difficult otherwise to account for Jack Straw’s determination, without — as he proudly declared — any cover from the U.S. State Department, to try to enroll Iran in the coalition against terror late last September. Straw’s use of language that the fco must have known would be offensive to Israel in an article written for the Iranian press cannot easily be explained. Not only did the mission fail: It turned out to be doubly embarrassing when Iran was discovered to have dispatched a shipload of lethal weaponry to fuel Palestinian terrorism. Even Straw felt compelled in Washington to express his concern. Unwilling to abandon the fco’s infatuation with restoring relations with the more amenable Mullahs, however, he merely complained “about terrorism supported by unelected parts of Iran.” Such attitudes, nourished within the walls of the Arabist fco — not a mere infelicitous slip of the tongue — also explain the British foreign secretary’s scornful put-down of President Bush’s description of an “axis of evil” as being prompted by “mid-term elections coming up in November.”
Nor does Foreign Office thinking remain closeted in White Hall; it intrudes, albeit irregularly, into the atmosphere of Downing Street. Unlike Straw, Blair regards the relationship with the U.S. as “pivotal” (a favorite word), but he shares many elements of the fco outlook. Hence his own ill-conceived and ill-fated visit to Syria last November, where he was lectured for his pains by President Bashar al-Assad on Israeli “terrorism.”1 Hence too Blair’s insistence on his visit to Washington in early April that the Bush administration become much more closely embroiled in the Arab-Israeli conflict, slanting against Israel in order to improve the West’s credentials with the Arab world. 2
The British government, unlike the White House — and indeed contrary to the evidence drawn from the statements of al Qaeda members themselves — is convinced that the causes of Islamic violence lie in Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. This is all the more important and dangerous because Blair is also personally convinced — again unlike the Americans — that the war on terrorism can be won only by eliminating another root cause, the structural inequalities between the wealthy West and the poverty-stricken Third World. Hence the British prime minister’s otherwise oddly timed visit to Africa in February, designed to highlight his conviction of the need for more active “peacekeeping” and “massive additional development assistance.”
America can, of course, live with a British ally who seeks from time to time to indulge in a little international grandstanding on his own account. American policymakers will also recall that Blair, as a self-proclaimed left-of-center politician, has to indulge in some ideological balancing for domestic political consumption. The deeper problem is that the Blair government, supported and strongly encouraged by much of the policymaking apparatus, does not share the American administration’s worldview and is privately contemptuous of its allegedly simplistic analysis of world affairs.
Surprisingly, perhaps, this attitude extends to the top of the British military. Britain’s most distinguished forum on military affairs, the Royal United Services Institute (rusi), played host to two well-publicized lectures in the course of the Afghan campaign. Sir Michael Howard, Britain’s most eminent military historian, gave the first at the end of October. He described as a “terrible and irrevocable error” the U.S. description of the current campaign as a “war.” He argued that “the terrorists have already won an important battle if they can provoke the authorities into using overt armed force against them.” Of Osama bin Laden, Howard remarked: “He can’t lose.” In a superior tone he added: “I would like to think that thanks to our imperial experience the British understand these problems.” The Americans, naturally, didn’t. Howard has since had the grace to make a qualified retraction in the light of subsequent events — but not so the chief of the British Defense Staff, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, who on December 12 also addressed his thoughts to rusi.
The other Sir Michael was no more enamored of the American cousins. He sternly warned that the war in Afghanistan was “not a high-tech 21st century posse in the new Wild West.” He said that Britain should be wary of following “the United States’s single-minded [did he perhaps originally write ‘simple-minded’?] aim to finish Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.” And he added that “broader operations into regions that threaten uk policy goals will force us to choose between unconditional support to the coalition, conditional support, and ‘red lines’ or selective support — or indeed lack of support.”
This sort of self-important, patronizing tone from senior British figures is not new. It is, in fact, one of the elements of the “special relationship” that has made it seem to successive generations of Americans rather less than special. The underlying assumption has not changed greatly over the years: The Foreign Office described its American policy in 1944 as being to “steer this great unwieldy barge, the United States, into the right harbor.” Prime Minister Harold Macmillan liked to ruminate on the British being the equivalent of the (smooth and sophisticated) Greeks to America’s (bluff and belligerent) Romans, discreetly overlooking the fact that most Greeks were slaves in the heyday of imperial Rome.
Illusion and reality
Macmillan was a master of illusion; but illusions — on both sides — have done decades of harm to the Anglo-American relationship. Indeed, viewed in the light of history, alongside America’s own illusions the occasional embarrassing excess of British archaism pales in comparison. Policy towards Europe is a very relevant case in point.
It is sometimes forgotten — and neither the U.S. State Department nor the chanceries of Europe have an interest in reminding us — just how much the United States was the driving force for European political union. Eisenhower not only wanted a “United States of Europe”; he even spoke enthusiastically of it as a “third force.” Kennedy’s worry was that the Europeans might give up some of their supranational ambitions in order to let Britain in. He needn’t have worried. Bush senior made a great show of regarding a reunited Germany as the leader of Europe until he found that only the Brits (and to a modest extent the French) would stand by America in the Gulf. Even the current predominantly Euroskeptic U.S. administration has wavered. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s pronouncements have (perhaps unwittingly) played into Blair’s hands, allowing the prime minister to claim that the U.S. had given its full approval to a European army that will act independently of nato. Blair, for example, quoted Powell in order to show America’s support for the notion that (in Blair’s words) “a more effective common [European] foreign and security policy, together with making a success of the European Defence Initiative, is vital.”
America’s long-established policy towards Britain and Europe — one of downplaying the British-American “special relationship” in search of a broader and more fruitful “special relationship” with a united Europe — has, in fact, been based on three mutually reinforcing illusions. The first was an overly optimistic assessment of America’s ability to bind the continental European countries into a genuine trans-Atlantic community of interests. The second was a naïve belief that greater European unity would lead to a larger European contribution to the continent’s defense. And the third was a complacent assumption that, whatever the vicissitudes of the European project, the U.S. could rely in the last resort on Britain to put it all back on track. In their different ways each of these hopes has been comprehensively betrayed. So what can America do now?
The starting point for a coherent answer must surely be to insist on re-grounding U.S.-British relations on hard reality. Looking back, it is clear that the only periods when the special relationship between the U.S. and the uk has worked satisfactorily have been when it was based on effective mutual cooperation to the benefit of each country’s national interest. Thus, unsurprisingly, British governments have wielded influence with successive American administrations in proportion to British contributions to American objectives. So in the early 1950s Clement Attlee was able to urge nuclear restraint on Truman — because British troops were engaged in combat by the side of the Americans in Korea. Likewise, Thatcher successfully urged caution about abandoning the nuclear deterrent in pursuit of Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative on the eve of the 1985 Reykjavik Summit — because Britain was America’s leading Cold War ally. And if the scale of British military contributions has diminished alarmingly in recent years, at least Britain provides a vote on the U.N. Security Council, lends support to American leadership in nato, and can usually be relied upon to act as a cheerleader in the European Union — and British troops are actually prepared to fight and suffer casualties.
Inevitably, though, Britain is the greater beneficiary of mutual cooperation in security matters with the United States — simply because a medium-sized power can never bring as much to such a relationship as a superpower. But superpowers need reliable allies, and one quality the British have been shown to have in abundance within the trans-Atlantic alliance is reliability.
It is, at root, mutual trust that has traditionally allowed British and American forces to share the same battlefield. The growing gap between the two partners’ military equipment threatens that friendship for technical reasons. And, as previously noted, the inbuilt prejudices of the British foreign and security policy establishment are no help either. But British soldiers, unlike many of their European equivalents, are still psychologically equipped to fight; they are rigorously professional; and, again unlike most other European armies, they are undiluted by militarily ineffective conscripts. True, by the side of the U.S. defense effort, Britain’s seems somewhat paltry. Compared, however, with the rest of Europe we appear positively militaristic.
Thus only the Greeks and Turks now spend larger shares of their gdp on defense — about 5 percent each compared with an average European 2 percent — and their efforts are principally made with a view toward fighting each other rather than supporting nato. For its part, Germany, Europe’s largest and wealthiest nation, seems on present performance to have abandoned all pretense of pulling its military weight. Even the French now admit that Britain has become Europe’s only serious military power. Writing in Le Figaro, the commentator Arnaud de La Grange sadly observed: “For the United States, the United Kingdom has become the only credible partner, while the French have been dropped.”
At the heart of Anglo-American defense collaboration remains the nuclear weapon, though diplomats are too polite to mention that fact. Of course, all of nato ultimately benefits from the American nuclear umbrella, but since 1961 Britain has enjoyed unique access to America’s nuclear weapons technology. De Gaulle realized at the time the defining importance of the British decision to acquire Polaris from the United States rather than to develop a British equivalent of the Force de frappe: It convinced him that Britain’s orientation would always be dangerously Atlanticist. In any case, since then the British nuclear deterrent, though independent as regards control, has been dependent on America with regard to technology. The same still applies to Trident. This arrangement has allowed Britain to maintain a more effective nuclear deterrent (and at a lower cost) than France’s. At the same time it has also given Washington unique leverage in influencing wider British policy.
Still more important, from a day-to-day security perspective, is U.S.-British intelligence sharing, which is indispensable alike to the mounting of British military and intelligence operations and the maintenance of British national security. It also gives the country a substantial strategic advantage over other medium-sized powers, particularly in Europe. For its part, Britain shares intelligence with the U.S. and other English-speaking countries that it does not share with the eu. (The regular meetings of Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee are even attended by representatives of the cia and of the Canadian and Australian intelligence agencies.) Naturally, such procedures drive the Europeans wild. Enraged by allegations of commercial espionage centering on the Echelon intelligence-sharing program, one French member of the European Parliament exploded: “This is an Anglo-Saxon Protestant conspiracy. So much for Britain’s commitment to European solidarity! Its real union is with America.”
The underlying reason for Anglo-American closeness on intelligence is not, however, mere waspish prejudice, but rather a well-founded American suspicion that intelligence shared with the mainland Europeans is likely to be leaked to the press, sold to the highest bidder, or betrayed to America’s enemies. And when the U.S. does find itself having to share intelligence with the Europeans, the outcome only confirms American fears — as when France was found to have passed vital information about nato air strikes to the Serbs in Kosovo.3 In short, America’s “special relationship” in intelligence also benefits the United States.
Cooperation on security matters — broadly defined — is therefore one of the main foundations of the actual special relationship. But there are others. And European statesmen, their perceptions sharpened by a degree of anxiety, have been most acute in describing them.
De Gaulle’s grumblings are well-known. But Bismarck’s insight into the future was more profound. Late in his life the old man was asked what he considered to be the decisive factor in shaping modern history. He answered: “The fact that the North Americans speak English.” Even this, though, was only part of the truth. A century earlier Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, who had benefited from periods of exile in both Britain and the United States before he embarked on his vocation of remodeling Europe, employed a lecture before the Institut de France to assess the links which bound the Anglo-Saxon world. He had been struck by the fact that, just a few years after the American Revolution, the former colonists were far closer to Britain, which had oppressed them, than to France, which had assisted their liberation. Talleyrand thought that a common language was part of the answer. A common legal system, he considered, was important too. But he also noted how common economic interests, which bound the two nations through trade, had quickly restored that harmony which political disputes had disrupted. He was right: Culture and commerce, working together, have powerful consequences, as the intervening centuries of “special relationship” have shown.
Trends and opportunities
The consequences could again be highly beneficial for the United States and Britain, given global trends that are currently at work. It is now a cliché to observe that English is already the global language of business. But it has taken a group of Anglo-American thinkers and writers to explore just what the dominance of English may mean. Language, they point out, is a medium not only for calculation but also for culture. In particular, the English language is a symbol of common attitudes and values. A powerful case can be made that the English-speaking world — or “Anglosphere” — has generated a uniquely successful civil society accompanied by a strong commitment to “individualism, rule of law, honoring contracts and covenants, and the elevation of freedom to the first rank of political and cultural values.” This in turn has resulted in the enviable freedom, stability, and prosperity that characterize most of the Anglophone countries. The proponents of this view want to see such commonalities protected and promoted by institutional means in “trade, defense, free movement of peoples, and scientific cooperation.”4
It is not, in fact, necessary to accept the policy prescriptions of Anglosphere enthusiasts to recognize that they have drawn attention to a profound and potent phenomenon. The English-speaking nations have particular interests, which will not in every instance coincide. But in the longer term and in the wider scheme they almost certainly will, because these nations — above all the United States and Britain — view the world in much the same light and want to shift it in broadly the same direction. Such reflections clearly cast doubt on the desirability for America of placing hemispheric (Latin American) or Pacific (Asian) interests above those of the Anglo-American relationship and its connection with European integration.
In recent years, the common outlook of the English-speaking world and the contrast with those outside it has been nowhere more apparent than in economics. On this at least, British Euroenthusiasts and Euroskeptics can agree: There is a fundamental difference between American capitalism and the Rhenish or Gallic varieties, and Britain since the 1980s has done what it can to practice the former rather than the latter. With public expenditure running at a little less than 40 percent of gdp, the uk stands about midway between the American and European models. Britain is even closer to the U.S. when it comes to the government’s interface with business. As in America, British business expects to operate in an environment of low regulation and without routine use of kickbacks to state officials; the threat of mergers and takeovers is widely regarded as bracing and beneficial; and it is understood that the interests of shareholders and profits, not co-management with employees and industrial strategy, drive the system. The results are different too: Any assessment of relative performance in recent years will confirm that while Anglo-Saxon capitalism generates growth and jobs, European capitalism swells debt and welfare rolls.
The shared approach — as well, naturally, as the shared language — of Britain and the United States is also reflected in patterns of trade and investment. Britain is unlike the main continental European economies in that it is far more oriented towards exports to non-European Union countries, to which half of its total exports (visibles and invisibles) are directed — despite the eu’s external tariff and Single Market measures. Britain is also the largest overseas investor in the United States: The U.S. receives 44 percent of uk overseas investment, compared with the European Union’s 36 percent. The figures shift the other way when it comes to foreign investment in Britain — but only just. The U.S. provides 38 percent of uk foreign investment and eu countries 46 percent — but America is still a far more important investor than any single eu country.
Partly in response to these contrasts between the British and European economic facts of life, there have been calls for the uk to join America in the expanding North American Free Trade Association. Unfortunately, that would involve facing up to questions about Britain’s institutional relationship with the European Union that no one yet wishes to confront.5 What is already clear, however, is that if America is committed to the extension of its own model of free enterprise around the globe — and it is in America’s interests that its values should be shared and its markets expanded — then Britain is its major partner in the global economic game.
And then, of course, there is still the fundamental question of security. Americans at present complain (though quietly, in order to avoid appearing ungrateful) that their British allies are not really pulling their weight. They are right. Britain has to do more if it expects to be taken seriously.
This should certainly involve a sustained increase in defense spending, rising to at least 3 percent of gdp, which Britain last reached in 1995. It would require a sharp and open break with the heavy bias towards Europe that distorts Britain’s defense procurement and the establishment of a new, more cooperative relationship between the Ministry of Defense and the Pentagon. Equally important would be a more positive attitude by Tony Blair toward U.S. plans for ballistic missile defense. Britain could offer to cooperate in all respects with the U.S. in upgrading the Fylingdales early-warning facility. In exchange, the government could expect that the U.S. missile shield be extended to cover Britain, not just the American homeland. After all, as America’s closest ally and a great deal nearer to the Middle East to boot, the uk is probably second only to Israel as the most likely target for a rogue state’s missile attack.
The European conundrum
The largest single obstacle to a revivified special relationship lies, though, in Europe — and in different degrees both the U.S. administration and the British government are in denial about it. As has been noted, the United States has spent decades pressing Britain to become fully integrated in European supranational structures. This is not, it seems, the policy of the present administration. But there are still influential voices in Washington questioning whether Europe’s plans should be taken seriously.
It is easy to see why. European political horse-trading is notorious. Extremism is on the rise. The euro is sickly. Europe’s ambitions for an independent Rapid Reaction Force (or Euroarmy) bear no obvious relationship to reality.6 For the foreseeable future Europe will remain almost wholly dependent on the U.S. for logistical support, accurate missiles, communications satellites, and military computers. Yet American skeptics about Europe’s significance are only half right. This is because Europe only needs to be a second-order player on the world stage to create a host of problems for the American superpower.
The United States cannot at this stage, even if it wanted, prevent the emergence of a rival European megastate with its own identity and ambitions. But it can still reduce the harm that the development does to nato; it can seek to counter-balance Europe’s international ambitions; it can try to maintain the global momentum for limited government and free trade; and it can ensure that the U.S. does not stand alone when great issues are at stake. To achieve all these goals, America needs Britain.
For his part, Blair will use every available device to avoid choosing between America and Europe. But if Washington presses its case, as a political realist he will buckle. Being Blair, he will doubtless do it with style, grace, and rhetorical ambiguity. Yet if Washington insists on Britain reshaping (or scuppering) European military plans, desisting from further European integration, and renewing its trans-Atlantic focus, London will comply. That’s how the world still works. America has never been squeamish about telling Britain what it expects from the special relationship. If it now wants to give that arrangement teeth — and it should — the administration will need first to show its own.
1Al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, had already provided ample proof that it was possible both to oppose Islamic fundamentalism and back terror. He exterminated between 10,000 and 30,000 Islamists in the siege of Hama in 1982 but also enthusiastically backed Hizbollah, Hamas and other terrorist groups.
2I have assessed both the British prime minister’s motives and the damaging consequences for America in the (London) Daily Telegraph (April 22, 2002).
3Evidence at the treason trial of Maj. Pierre-Henri Bunel in December 2001 suggested that his betrayal of secrets to the Serbs was the tip of a larger iceberg of double-dealing authorized by French military intelligence. There have also been strong suspicions of French complicity in the protection from arrest of indicted Serb war criminals like Radovan Karadzic.
4The Anglosphere case is advanced at length by James Bennett, “The Emerging Anglosphere: America and the West,” Orbis (Winter 2002), from which these quotations come. For trenchant arguments against it, see Owen Harries, “The Anglosphere Illusion,” the National Interest (Spring 2001).
5Or almost no one. Cf. Margaret Thatcher, Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World (London: Harper Collins, 2002), 360-411.
6European Leaders declared the European Rapid Reaction Force “operational” in December 2001. But the following January Jack Straw had to admit that the EU still lacked a third of its planned capabilities.