Et tu, Britain?This is what a lot of Americans are thinking with the news that a British parliamentary committee has pronounced the special relationship ‘dead’.Actually, one of the wonderful things about a special relationship is that it has more lives than a cat. Brits and Americans have been pronouncing the special relationship dead since the Suez Crisis, when the United States demanded that Britain end its invasion of Egypt. LBJ was furious with Harold Wilson — and vice versa — over the Vietnam War. Margaret Thatcher was furious when Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada (a member of the British Commonwealth whose official head of state is Queen Elizabeth II) without giving her so much as the courtesy of a phone call. Later, George H. W. Bush pushed the reunification of Germany against the combined objections of Thatcher and French president Francois Mitterand.Yet somehow the relationship survived, and somehow it continued to be special — a relationship that, for all its drama and frequent disappointments, is like no other international relationship in the world.
Bulldog or Poodle?
But as Winston Churchill (who coined the phrase back in 1946) would have surely understood, the British and Americans, divided by the possession of a common language, understand the meaning of the phrase in different ways. For the Brits, ‘special relationship’ means more than a special feeling of connection or a persisting parallelism in our interests; it is a strategic idea. By sticking close to the United States, successive British governments have hoped that they could gain special influence over the United States, and that influence or the perception of it would contribute to Britain’s own power and prestige in the wider world.This vision for the relationship has always led to disappointment; even Winston Churchill was shocked by the ease with which Franklin Roosevelt ignored (or actively opposed) Britain’s imperial goals during World War Two. When furious British pundits and politicians asked what Tony Blair got as ‘payoff’ for supporting the United States in the Iraq War, they were looking at the special relationship from this characteristically British point of view. Was Britain’s support for the US paying off? Was the United States giving Britain something valuable in return for its support? Was Britain’s prestige enhanced by its closeness to the United States?The answer in the Iraq case was no and, as the parliamentary committee observed, Britain actually lost prestige in the world to the degree that the country was regarded as an “American poodle.”When the parliamentarians tell Brits to give up on the special relationship, they mean that Britain should give up on the dream that fawning dependence on the US will make it somehow stronger and richer. The United States is not willing to pay a high price for British support, and so Britain should make foreign policy with less deference to Washington’s wishes and more attention to its own needs.I can’t disagree; it’s going to be rare that Britain can extract major concessions from the United States in this way and in any case neither the British nor we would consider that kind of relationship either honorable or appropriate.
Together: Like It Or Not
But the special relationship is not really a matter of favors received and favors bestowed. The United States and Great Britain have a special relationship because our views of the world and our interests are so similar (though they are far from identical) that more often than not we both want the same things. This is no secret; the rest of the world knows that the two of us (along with the other ‘cousins’ in Canada, New Zealand and Australia and, increasingly, Ireland) will constantly bicker, but more often than not we end up on the same side.Charles de Gaulle vetoed Britain’s entry into the European Union because he thought Britain was a “Trojan horse” that would introduce American ideas and priorities into the inner councils of Europe. He was right. Ever since the British got into the club (after de Gaulle gave up the French presidency), they have worked to make the EU more ‘Anglo-Saxon’. They work for freer markets and they fight the centralization of power in Brussels. They steadfastly support expansion, partly to dilute the power of France and Germany in the club, and partly because they know that a wider EU will be less likely to grow into the kind of ‘superstate’ which would erode Britain’s own independence.
Globally, Britain and the United States agree far more often than they differ. We both like free trade, financial market regulation that is only as restrictive as it absolutely has to be, and we care deeply about the free flows of investment and ideas. We don’t object to the development of regional associations (like ASEAN, the EU and so forth) but we want these regional organizations to remain open to the rest of the world. We both dislike illiberal regimes; we like to see regional balances of power; we combine aspirations for a more peaceful world with a belief that force is sometimes necessary. We both like capitalism more than other people (perhaps in Britain the English like it more than the Scots these days) and over the centuries we have both been pretty good at it.There are significant differences between us as well. (more…)