The long-standing “special relationship” between the United States and Britain, coupled with the close relationship between Tony Blair and George W. Bush, has been at the heart of post-9/11 initiatives, especially the military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now that President Bush has won reelection, the political spotlight has turned toward a likely British election this spring. How will that election and its consequences affect the future of the special relationship?
The significant economic, security, historical, and cultural interests that have bound the United States and Britain into a close friendship for more than a century will remain firmly in place. That said, it is important to understand that the political fallout in Britain from the extraordinary coordination between the two nations in recent years (especially during the war in Iraq) is actually weakening the special relationship at this point. This trend is likely to continue during the next few years no matter which British political party wins the coming election.
This pessimistic forecast may come as a shock to many Americans who have come to admire Tony Blair for his steadfast support of American foreign policy since 9/11 and who consider British support in international affairs as nearly automatic. Just as most Americans could not understand how the much-admired Mrs. Thatcher could be ousted by her own Conservative Party colleagues, Americans cannot seem to understand that Blair is in serious political danger. But a closer look is quite revealing.
Although he is a hero to the American public, there is growing opposition in Britain to Blair’s fidelity to President Bush, his foreign policy initiatives, and especially the war in Iraq. Strong opposition to the prime minister has grown in every sector of British society but especially from within his Labour Party base. Blair’s troubles are not just affecting his own political future but also the views of Britons about how foreign policy is made and the whole pattern of British international relationships (especially with the United States).
Blair’s Roll of the Dice
Blair signed on without hesitation to a very close alliance with President Bush after 9/11. He had already signaled that intention from the beginning of the Bush administration, despite his political differences with Bush and despite Blair’s close friendship with Bill Clinton. After 9/11 Blair renewed this pledge and wholeheartedly embraced American policy initiatives in the war on terror, including the American initiatives leading to war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Despite fierce disagreement from some of his Cabinet colleagues, Blair never hinted that he might harbor misgivings about his collaboration with Bush. This included very tough moments in March 2003 when Blair wanted President Bush to hold off from going to war in Iraq in order to give diplomacy more of a chance. But when the president insisted on going ahead, Blair sent British troops into battle without further hesitation.
In making the decision to join the United States in Iraq, Blair was explicitly drawing on his unusual political strength at that time. Only months before the Iraq war began, Blair led his Labour Party to a historic second straight landslide victory in the 2001 British general election. Riding high politically, Blair took Britain into war with a decision-making style criticized by many as “presidential.” Many observers criticized Blair’s running of his “own” foreign policy and his running roughshod over the loud objections of some of his senior colleagues in the Cabinet—several of whom ultimately resigned in protest.
But the prime minister wagered a large portion of the political capital he had just won in the 2001 election on a bet that his alliance with President Bush would yield a quick payoff. Blair hoped to achieve the following: confirmation and destruction of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction; the ouster of Saddam Hussein (although Blair was squeamish about declaring regime change a goal because of international law issues); creation of a powerful political impetus in the Middle East toward solving myriad problems, including the Palestinian-Israel crisis; securing the Middle East oil supply; establishing a semi-permanent physical presence in the Middle East that could project power in the region; and enhancing his own personal leadership stature. In fact, Blair hoped that a quick victory in Iraq would cement his role as a European leader who could bridge the often-contentious gap between the United States and important dissenting European allies. Blair very much hoped (though he never stated so publicly) that he would be named the European Union’s first president under the new EU constitution.
But now, two years after the beginning of the Iraq war, Blair finds himself in almost opposite circumstances. No weapons of mass destruction have been found; there has not been a quick victory or exit from Iraq; no solutions to the myriad other problems plaguing the region have been achieved; he failed to be effective as a bridge between the United States and dissenting Western allies (in fact the relationship has worsened); he is even less likely than earlier to emerge as an EU president. Perhaps worst of all for Blair has been his transformation from a towering political figure and Labour Party hero into the politician that Britons say they dislike and distrust more than any other and, within the Labour Party membership, a leader they can’t wait to be rid of.
There is a widely held view in Britain—rightly or wrongly—that Blair allowed himself to be “hijacked” by the Bush administration because he was blinded by his own ambitions. Once ensnared, his critics reason, Blair could not find a way out of his entanglements with the Americans when it became obvious that events were going wrong. He remains as prime minister and Labour Party leader because the opposition Conservative Party continues to be so weak that it doesn’t look able at this point to mount a serious election challenge in the spring. The Conservatives still suffer from their strong support for Blair’s foreign policy, especially the Iraq war, and they still carry the baggage of the failed government during the 1990s that led to their landslide 1997 election loss. Because Labour members of the House of Commons do not fear the loss of their own seats in the upcoming election, they continue to tolerate Blair’s incumbency rather than risk a destructive pre-election leadership battle. But once the election is over, whether Labour wins or loses in an upset, the leadership struggle will begin in earnest even if Blair continues to insist that he is staying on for a third full term.
Regardless of whether Blair continues as prime minister for a while longer, or whether a new Labour leader (such as Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown) quickly becomes prime minister, or even whether Conservative leader Michael Howard pulls off a big election upset, British foreign policymaking will change with respect to style and substance. The United States will remain Britain’s closest ally, but Britain will be more skeptical and hesitant about embracing American initiatives and about committing its military to war. Britain will be more insistent that diplomacy be allowed to run its course, that a greater effort be made to build solid and credible coalitions, and that its junior-partner status in its relationship with the United States be improved.
Britons have resented, sometimes bitterly, that the Bush administration does not appear interested in reciprocal support for Britain’s agenda in international affairs. This imbalance was vividly on display at the White House in November 2004, when Blair was the first foreign leader to visit President Bush after his reelection. Blair came armed with an agenda that he wanted the president to endorse. Although the president generally agreed to support most of Blair’s “wish list,” his comments at their joint news conference were restrained and open-ended—and did little to give the impression that Blair was being rewarded for his costly support during difficult days and certainly did not dispel the caustic complaint in Britain that Blair is Bush’s “poodle.”
Given this discontent, there is already some refocusing of British foreign policy on Europe. Blair, or his successor, will want to work harder to repair the damage in Britain’s relations with France and Germany. British ambivalence about strong European ties (despite its EU membership) runs deep and strong in the national psyche. Opposition to the adoption of the euro as Britain’s currency remains overwhelming, as does any thought of surrendering the power of British governing institutions to EU sovereignty. But the idea of working with European partners on foreign policy and security issues is gaining favor. Britain is not only unsatisfied with its relationship with the United States, it is painfully aware that its image has slipped in Europe. In fact, there is a sense that, by taking the American view entirely in recent years, the British have given France and Germany an open field in which they could press their views on the European community as well as establishing greater influence with the slew of new EU member nations.
Finally, there is the matter of Blair’s “presidential” style of foreign policymaking, especially with respect to the commitment of British troops. Blair had been criticized from the beginning of his administration about how little attention he paid to the views of both his Cabinet and his colleagues in the House of Commons. It has been a constant complaint over the last century that prime ministers are increasingly more powerful than even their most senior Cabinet colleagues. But Blair has taken prime ministerial dominance to a higher level, armed with his huge parliamentary majorities.
The dynamic at the moment is in the direction of restraining prime ministerial power, especially in the foreign policy area. All three major political parties seem committed to this change. The incumbent Labour Party expresses this change by harkening back to its traditional collective leadership, and the most prominent competitors to replace Blair as party leader are wooing their intra-party electorate with promises to return to “real” Labour governance. Even the Conservatives—who have always armed their leaders with power both in and out of office—are talking about collectivity and consensus-seeking. Whereas Americans revere their system of checks and balances, allowing for presidential power, the British cherish their parliamentary democracy with its fusion between Parliament and the government of the day, which is accountable to it.
The special relationship will remain special for as far as the eye can see. But the initiatives taken up by President Bush and Prime Minister Blair, especially the war in Iraq, have spawned a political backlash in Britain that will certainly restrain the power and policies of future prime ministers in foreign affairs—at least for the next few years.