The new British government was still settling into its offices when the 38-year-old Chancellor of the Exchequer (in the US he’d be called the Secretary of the Treasury) George Osborne dashed off to Brussels to announce that Britain would not fight, because it could not win, over new regulations on hedge funds. Meanwhile, the next battle, over the EU budget for next year, is already shaping up.
The hedge fund directive is a typically European mess. It doesn’t address the real problem (hedge funds were not responsible for the market crash of 2008); it is good populist politics on the Continent where it allows politicians to pose as defenders of the little people against the dreaded menace of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ capitalism; and it sacrifices British interests (London is an international financial center in a way that Frankfurt and Paris are not) to the needs of the Franco-German partnership at the core of modern Europe.
So the new British government has swallowed its first European toad, only weeks after its predecessor swallowed an American toad: Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s bow to the Argentine position that Britain and Argentina need to ‘discuss’ the question of British sovereignty over the Falklands (aka Malvinas) Islands in the South Atlantic, scene of Britain’s greatest triumph since World War II when Margaret Thatcher’s government drove back an inept but brutal Argentine invasion of the rocky, sheep-dotted isles.
Toad swallowing is a delicate art; one must not only get the horrible thing down without gagging, but one must also smile and look imperturbably calm while doing so, as if swallowing a live toad were no more challenging or unpleasant than a light canapé. The Brits have gotten very good at it since the 1930s when Adolf Hitler served up one warty, bug-eyed amphibian after another to the demurely-swallowing Neville Chamberlain; Winston Churchill was kept on a steady toad diet by both FDR and Joseph Stalin; since then it has been one damned thing after another as British power waned and the fabric of its empire and international standing was gradually, relentlessly dismantled. George Bush was, many Brits felt, one toad too far, but a new poll suggests Bush left office, Britons feel that their relations with the United States have gone downhill. (See this useful Wall Street Journal article by William Inboden and Lisa Aronsson for an analysis of British public opinion.)
There will, it seems safe to predict, more toads proffered to Britain from all sides during the current coalition government’s time in office. Is there really nothing Britain can do but to swallow, to smile and to bow?
The Emperor’s New Role?
It’s been almost 50 years since Dean Acheson put his finger on the problem when he said that Britain “has lost an empire but not yet found a role.” Another way to put this is to say that British foreign policy has plenty of aspirations and goals, but it lacks strategy. The British navy no longer rules the waves, and the British haven’t figured out any alternative ways to get other people to do what they want.
This in part is the fault of British ambitions. The British think globally in much the way that Americans do. This is because their interests, like ours, are global. Europe is part of Britain’s world but it is not and cannot be the center of British foreign policy. Britain’s ties to the Arab world aren’t just a historical legacy from the (short) period of British colonial rule; they reflect much more powerfully the trade and investment ties that have grown up since the Britons pulled out of the region fifty years ago. (Close British ties to Arab countries like Kuwait help explain Britain’s support of the US against Iraq, by the way. Tony Blair wasn’t Bush’s poodle so much as he was the custodian of Britain’s vital special relationships with some vulnerable Gulf sheikhdoms.) Unlike the other European empires, the British Empire created a basis in many countries for rapid growth and modernization after independence. As a result, economic relations with ex-colonial lands have often grown rather than shrunken in importance since the fall of the empire. Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, India, Pakistan, Nigeria: Britain has close and profitable ties with people around the world and those ties necessarily help shape Britain’s perception of its interests.
This combination of global goals and short reach helps explain why Britain keeps coming back to the ‘special relationship’ with the US — and why that relationship almost never makes Britain happy. Because the two countries share a global orientation, the US and the UK are often thinking about the same issues and their ideas about what ought to be done are often similar. More than any other country except the United States, Britain wants an integrated global economy under the influence of liberal ideas and the rule of law; but Britain is essentially helpless when it comes to moving the world. China, India, Russia and even the US don’t pay much attention to British prime ministers coming out with grandiose plans for global financial regulation, trade reform, development assistance or the fight against climate change.
From Britain’s point of view, American support is vital; without strong American interest and commitment, none of the steps Britain would like to see taken globally will ever happen. But the US does not perceive Britain as an important factor in building a global consensus; Americans think that the British are usually with us but that it doesn’t matter all that much. China, Russia and India aren’t going to back an idea because of British influence; Britain can’t even bring the Europeans along, much less the rising powers around the world whose cooperation America really needs. Britain is a mother to be respected, a friend to be loved and even sometimes a critic to be heard, but it is not a lover to be wooed or a great power to be bribed by concessions and offers. This is why the recent Yougov poll showed that 62 percent of Britons think the US is their closest ally, 82 percent want the alliance to stay as close as it is or even be strengthened — but 85 percent think that Britain has little influence over the US and 62 percent think that the US does not take British interests into account.
Faced with this situation, the British ‘strategy’ since World War Two has basically been to try to earn ‘loyalty points’ which it hopes can be turned into cash and prizes down the road. But like airline customers who can never use their frequent flier miles to get anywhere they want to go on the dates they want to travel, Britain has a hard time cashing in its points for anything worthwhile.
In Europe, Britain has had even worse luck. For 300 years the UK tried to prevent any one power or coalition of powers from dominating Europe. For more than one hundred years (1689-1815) it fought a series of ruinous wars to keep France from dominating Europe and the world. In the 1850s it intervened with France against Russia to limit Russia’s march into Europe. From 1914 to 1945 it waged ruinous war against German drives to control the old world and preventing Soviet domination of Europe was a key motive of British foreign policy all during the Cold War.
After World War Two the French and the Germans decided to put an end to this British game; in western Europe at least a close alliance between the French and the Germans would keep the British out and allow continental Europeans (at least some continental Europeans) to order their affairs after their own liking. Ever since the 1950s that Franco-German alliance has dominated the European political landscape and to this day the British have not found a workable counter strategy. In the beginning, the British attempted to grandly ignore the pathetic scrambling on the continent: Britain had the world and who needed the flea-bitten, war-ravaged European neighbors?
As Europe recovered and the Common Market (precursor of the EU) worked, the British changed their tune and decided they wanted in. This gave Charles de Gaulle, one of the most visionary and nationalist Frenchmen who ever lived, a heaven-sent opportunity to revenge centuries of slights and outrages at the hands of ‘perfidious Albion’ by vetoing Britain’s application for Common Market membership. Finally, a decade later, a humbled and battered Britain was admitted to the Common Market at the cost of severing some of its closest economic relations with countries like New Zealand and Australia (where they are still bitter over the betrayal).
But admission to the Common Market (which gradually evolved into first the European Community and then the European Union of today) did not solve Britain’s problems. The Franco-German entente at the heart of the EU was unshaken; Britain was a bit player in European politics, constantly having to give in and give ground. Britain became notorious as the EU’s most awkward and reluctant member, and the question of European toad-eating moved to the center of British politics. Which European toads should Britain eat, and how many of them was it necessary to consume? Was it better to go on sulking and toad-eating inside the EU, or would it be better to flounce out? Neither alternative really works, so Europe has become a damned if you do, damned if you don’t problem for British governments.
Tory (Conservative) governments are usually the most Euro-skeptical, and there is a lot of grassroots sentiment in the Tory Party to get the hell out of Europe. But Europe divides Labor too; it was the Labor government of Tony Blair (at the urging of the then-Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown) that kept Britain out of the euro. The Liberal Democrats, now junior partners in the ruling coalition, have historically been the most uncritical admirers of the EU; it will be interesting to see how the shotgun marriage between Britain’s most Euroskeptic and Europhile major parties works out.
An End to the All-Toad Diet?
“Toad in the hole” (a bland sausage hidden in a mound of mashed potatoes) is one of the classic dishes of England’s world famous cuisine, but most Britons would like to curb their country’s consumption of diplomatic toads. The question for the new government is can this be done? Can Britain develop strategy that can get either Europe or the United States (and preferably both) to pay more attention to specifically British interests and concerns?
The answer is yes, but it won’t be easy. Britain’s Europhiles have long argued that inserting Britain into the ‘heart’ of the EU could give it the influence and power inside Europe that would make it more important to the United States. If Britain can’t be an independent great power on its own, the argument goes, it can gain enough influence inside the emerging great power of the EU that the United States would start paying more attention to Britain’s interests. The strategy never worked; with the best will in the world Britain couldn’t eat enough toads fast enough while smiling sincerely enough to convince Europeans that it was really on board with the project — and in any case, neither Germany nor France wanted their cozy domestic partnership expanded into a menage à trois.
But Europe is changing now in ways that may give Britain new opportunities to expand its influence — and perhaps to force a few of its partners to eat some amphibians in turn. As the EU expands, it looks less and less like the old-fashioned club, and the Franco-German partnership is becoming steadily less close and less powerful. The crisis of the euro and the general decline of Europe’s influence worldwide illuminates the failure and futility of the Franco-German project since 1990. With Europeans ready to rethink all the assumptions of their common project, perfidious Albion has a chance to get back into the game of European power politics which it once played so supremely well. Better still, it doesn’t have to do this in the old toad-swallowing way of bowing its head to centralizing Franco-German dictates. It can now begin to take steps that will change the balance of power inside the EU and give Britain and its closest European associates an effective veto power over the future of the European project.
This calls for a blend of old and new thinking. On the one hand, European politics no longer involves the military and security issues that plunged the continent into one war after another for most of its history. The end of the era of European warfare was the greatest single accomplishment of the twentieth century and is a legacy that every European leader must endeavor to preserve. But the history of European politics is more than a history of war. It is also a history of wheeling and dealing, of making and breaking alliances, of coalitions and partnerships.
To stop eating toads, Britain has to re-invent the game of European politics. “Joining Europe” doesn’t and shouldn’t mean a mealy-mouthed acquiescence in the reigning (and wrongheaded) platitudes of the increasingly discredited Brussels consensus. It means an intelligent political participation in the life of Europe with the constant and steady aim of increasing British influence and advancing British interests. It means among other things finding ways to build cross-party alliances with European countries whose interests are broadly aligned with Britain’s, so that whether in the European Parliament, on the European Commission or in intergovernmental European meetings, proposals contrary to British views are blocked while proposals that advance those interests go forward.
Poland and the other ex-Warsaw Pact new members are natural allies for Britain, with countries like Sweden, Finland, Ireland and Portugal also playing a role. What Britain needs to do is to develop a foreign policy that coordinates on a variety of European and non-European issues with these key partners. In part it will be necessary for Britain to make some compromises to make the coalition work. For example, the European Union’s foolishly expensive and grossly distorted Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is probably here to stay. But with allies, Britain could insist on making it fair: the present system which disproportionately benefits France can and should be replaced by one which supports farmers in central and eastern Europe and in Poland above all. Let France eat some toads, for a change; the CAP can be transformed into something which promotes British political power in the union by founding its new coalition on the vital interests of its partners.
The Three Faces of Europe
Meanwhile, the old Franco-German partnership will come under great stress as the interests of southern countries and northern ones diverge. France’s natural role is the leader of a Latin bloc perhaps minus Portugal plus Greece: Europe’s Club Med (and the ever-faithful Walloons). These countries benefit disproportionately from current European policies which are also anti-market, anti-global and to a certain degree tilted against British political and economic interests. Against Club Med stand Europe’s west, north and east: Ireland, Scandinavia (minus non-member Norway) plus the Netherlands (and the Fleming half of Belgium), the Baltic republics, and the ex-Warsaw Pact members. These countries generally have more liberal and global ideas than the Club Med states and they would like to see European aid programs for poor regions either reduced or redirected by formulae that favor the east over the south.
Germany and its own faithful ally Austria cannot lead a bloc against Club Med. Too many countries fear German power and German interests and instincts are a bit too idiosyncratic to serve as the platform for a broader coalition. British leadership and only British leadership (with the specter of its special relationship with the United States behind it) can form a coalition that can steer Europe on a course of reform and redevelopment. What Britain can do is lead a larger, more complicated European Union into a new era by establishing a viable pattern for European political debate and decision making. Ultimately, Britain’s goal would be to see a three-bloc Europe: one founded on a Club Med triangle involving principally Spain, Italy and France; one founded on a set of common understandings among countries like Britain, Poland and their allies; and Germany and its closest partners. Neither Germany nor Club Med could have their way in Europe without the acquiescence of the support of the third coalition; Britain would have a policy which is neither anti-European nor toad-eating.
Giving Britain something like the tie-breaking vote in Europe would immensely raise Britain’s importance in the United States — especially if Britain and its allies were pushing Europe to make changes that could halt the continent’s long and accelerating decline into global irrelevance. Increasing British influence in Washington would in turn strengthen Britain’s hand in Europe.
Britain today has a once in a lifetime opportunity to find the role it has been seeking since World War Two. In its foreign minister, William Hague, it has a man whose brilliant biography of one of Britain’s greatest leaders reveals a deep understanding of the way global power works. The Conservative-LibDem coalition government needs a policy that can satisfy both LibDem europhiles and Tory hatred of the old European consensus.
Helping Europe work better while restoring British influence in Europe and the world would be good not only for Europe and Britain, but for the United States and the world. Here’s hoping the Brits can stop eating toads.