What are the sources of the American image around the world? How has it changed in recent years? And what, if anything, can the U.S. government do to shape that image? The American Interest posed these questions to a distinguished group of international observers. Their answers reflect diverse histories and circumstances, and offer some useful counsel.
Does the United States need to prepare itself for the end of the special relationship with the United Kingdom?
Should Americans be worried by all this? The conventional wisdom among experts on international relations is that they should. In particular, those who fret that U.S. foreign policy is suffering from a “legitimacy deficit” cite the Pew data as proof that the Bush Administration has frittered away international goodwill. From being John Winthrop’s city on a hill, America has become a city in a sink hole. But I am not so sure. For one thing, these surveys don’t go back very far. The late 1990s, when they started, may well have been a high watermark for Anglo-American amity. In 1999 everyone but a few mavericks and malcontents was happy: the indestructibly charming Mr. Clinton and the squeaky-clean Mr. Blair had just terminated Slobodan Milosevic’s policy of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. The Right cheered because they had come to loathe Milosevic during the Bosnian War. The Left cheered because they saw humanitarian intervention as legitimate.I suspect that the 1980s were much more like the early 2000s. Now that the American media have all but beatified him, it is easy to forget that Ronald Reagan was once portrayed by British cartoonists with just as much contempt as George Bush is today. The image of the pea-brained cowboy has lost none of its appeal to insular British left-wingers, who flatter themselves that they are smarter and more sophisticated than the President of the United States. No, Americans can relax; we’ve been here before.The idea of a special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom is, in any case, a Churchillian fiction. Before Churchill’s time, Anglo-American relations were not much better than cordial and sometimes rather worse than cool. It was not just the memory of the War of Independence and the War of 1812. Authors like Dickens were disdainful of the crudity of American society; all that boosting and spitting horrified the novelist, whose Martin Chuzzlewit is full of anti-American satire. Politicians like Gladstone were tempted to back the aristocratic but also free-trading South in the Civil War; one of history’s best “what ifs” asks how things might have turned out had the Confederacy secured both recognition and financial backing from London. Only with the realization of America’s vast economic potential after around 1870 did condescension yield to conciliation. By 1900 good relations with the United States had become the default-setting of British foreign policy, not out of any innate affinity but out of imperial self-interest. It was Churchill—whose mother was American—who tried to make this pragmatic relationship romantic. “Westward, look, the land is bright!” he told BBC listeners in the dark days of 1941, meaning that victory in the Second World War would only come if the United States could somehow be induced to join it. Yet Churchill had to contend with persistent American suspicion, even after Pearl Harbor had cut the Gordian knot of neutralism. Roosevelt himself feared that Churchill “would take advantage of the help given by America” to ensure that “Great Britain would have a bigger Empire.” As he put it, “The British would take land anywhere in the world, even if it were only a rock or a sand bar.” Roosevelt once complained to Churchill: “You have 400 years of acquisitive instinct in your blood”, as if imperialism were a congenital disease (one from which the United States was supposedly immune).Such views were widely held. In an open letter “to the People of England”, published in October 1942, the editors of Life magazine declared: “One thing we are sure we are not fighting for is to hold the British Empire together. We don’t like to put the matter so bluntly, but we don’t want you to have any illusions.” In 1943 American officials came up with a draft “Declaration on National Independence” aimed at European and Asian peoples under Axis rule. As one British official lamented, however, “the whole tenor” of the document was “to look forward to the ideal of the dissolution of the British Empire.” Nor did the Americans confine themselves to mere rhetoric. On one occasion, Roosevelt pressed Churchill to hand back Hong Kong to China as a gesture of “goodwill.”No amount of prime ministerial bluster in response could alter the fact that Britain now depended on the United States financially; and that gave the Americans leverage. When, in August 1944, Roosevelt heard that Britain was “broke”, he expressed ironic surprise. If that was the case, he joked, “I will go over there and make a couple of talks and take over the British Empire.” Representing the U.K. Treasury in Washington, John Maynard Keynes came to detest the way the Americans sought to exploit Britain’s financial weakness for their own ends. In his own stark metaphor, America was trying to “pick out the eyes of the British Empire.” As he told a friend: “I always regard a visit [to the United States] as in the nature of a serious illness to be followed by convalescence.” Nor was Keynes alone in feeling this way. One of his colleagues commented bitterly: “A visitor from Mars might well be pardoned for thinking that we were the representatives of a vanquished people discussing the economic penalties of defeat.”This pattern continued after the war’s end. As one American quipped, Britain was a “going” power, the United States a “coming” power, and the British were made to feel this. From the immediate American termination of Lend Lease onward, the United Kingdom was treated as a rival as much as an ally. British hopes to have a say over any American use of atomic bombs were swiftly dashed, even when the bombers carrying them were based in England. With good reason, the CIA became wary about sharing intelligence with MI6. Symbolically, in May 1950 Secretary of State Dean Acheson ordered the destruction of all copies of a State Department memorandum about the special relationship. Six years later, when Britain and France took up arms to reverse the nationalization of the Suez Canal, it was the United States that spoiled the party. Incandescent at not being consulted, and fearful of the domestic and international ramifications of seeming to back old-style colonialism, Eisenhower once again used American financial muscle—the offer of a loan to stem the run on sterling—to force the U.K. to withdraw from Egypt. Acheson, though now out of office, delivered the coup de grace when he declared that “Great Britain had lost an empire and not yet found a role.” Harold Macmillan was scathing in his response to this, but within a week the U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara had announced that Skybolt—the missile system the Americans had promised to sell Britain—was being cancelled, effectively killing off the idea of a truly independent U.K. nuclear deterrent.And yet one prime minister after another has refused to bury the dream of a special relationship. Macmillan fantasized about playing the ancient Greek sage to Kennedy’s virile young Roman. Margaret Thatcher saw herself as Vivien Leigh to Ronald Reagan’s Clark Gable. Frankly, did he give a damn? It’s usually claimed that Mrs. Thatcher derived a tangible benefit from that relationship during the Falklands War in the form of naval intelligence and other assistance. But the political price for that help had to be paid at least twice, first in the form of international humiliation over the American invasion of Grenada and second in domestic indignation over the American bombing of Libya.The exceptions to the postwar rule were Clement Attlee, who vehemently opposed the idea of using atomic weapons to win the Korean War; Edward Heath, who relished telling Richard Nixon that from now on he would have to deal with all nine members of the European Economic Community as if they were one; and Heath’s arch-rival Harold Wilson, who wisely resisted all pressure from the Americans to send even a token force to Vietnam. “Be British”, pleaded one American official when George Brown went to Washington in January 1968. “How can you betray us?” Dean Rusk would have settled for “just one battalion of the Black Watch.” “When the Russians invade Sussex”, Rusk grumbled when this too was denied, “don’t expect us to come and help you.”From the standpoint of the British national interest, Wilson almost certainly had it right. For what, to rephrase Alan Johnson’s question, does the United States really have to offer the United Kingdom in return for military backup? The answer is not much. The more the U.K. has committed itself to European integration, the less scope there has been for preferential treatment in economic matters. When it comes to international trade, there is no such thing as “Britain” as far as Washington is concerned; there is, as Heath was quick to grasp, only the European Union. True, the EU’s Trade Commissioner is currently an Englishman, but he is the embodiment of all that Americans dislike about the old country. (Should he ever have to quit his Brussels job—and such things have been known to happen—Peter Mandelson has a big future as a Hollywood villain.)As Tony Blair has discovered to his cost, the mere fact of loyalty does not entitle an American ally to meaningful influence in Washington. The Prime Minister may have hoped to have a say in the decisions that led to war against Iraq. But the Downing Street foreign policy aide Matthew Rycroft’s leaked memorandum of July 23, 2002 presents damning evidence that the Brits were nothing more than nervous spectators of a process beyond their control. According to “C”, the head of MI6, “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. . . . There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.”“It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action”, observed the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, “even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran.” The Attorney General added his opinion that “the desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action.” Significantly, it was Tony Blair who countered these arguments with a very simple piece of politician’s calculus: “If the political context were right, people would support regime change. The two key issues were whether the military plan worked and whether we had the political strategy to give the military plan the space to work.”Well, the military plan did work and Mr. Blair was able—just—to give it political space to work. But nearly all the reservations raised by the others quoted in Rycroft’s memorandum have since proved valid. The case for action against Saddam, based as it was on his non-existent weapons of mass destruction, was indeed “thin”, with the result that the legitimacy of the entire undertaking has been vitiated. The intelligence was indeed “fixed around the policy”, with the result that both American and British intelligence agencies have suffered severe blows to their credibility. There was indeed inadequate preparation for the aftermath of military action, with the result that Iraq has slithered from insecurity to insurgency to internecine war. Given the widespread disillusionment with what has happened in Iraq in the past three years, it would be extraordinary if the standing of the United States had not been diminished—along with the standing of the Prime Minister—in the eyes of the British public. Perhaps the truly remarkable thing, given the historically insubstantial and presently crumbling foundations of the special relationship, is that it has not been diminished more.