On the way to work at the Library of Congress during the year just past, I was stopped on more than one occasion by activists from the Lyndon LaRouche movement. Among the many interesting theories they regaled me with one sunny Spring morning, one stuck out: Queen Elizabeth II, through dastardly means, exerted a secret and nefarious influence on American foreign policy, manipulating it to serve British imperial interests. This, they said, explained America’s recent wars in the Middle East. Informing these activists that I was British and therefore delighted to hear this news, I added that to have such influence over the world’s most powerful state must be a testament to the hidden genius of British foreign policy. After all, I reminded them, it was only 200 years ago—August 24, 1814, to be precise—that British troops had burned this town down, marking the only time that a foreign power had captured and occupied the U.S. capital. I then continued merrily on my way.
The reality is, of course, more disheartening. The United Kingdom’s stock in Washington, DC, is diminishing. Foot-dragging and defense-cutting Britain is not the ally to America it once was. It is not even the ally it was earlier in this young century when it stood staunchly beside the United States after September 11, 2001, and in the two wars that followed. The United Kingdom is now handwringing about its role in the world in a way not witnessed for many decades. Caught in a peculiar posture of fealty to feckless UN resolutions and deferring dangerously to ponderous parliamentary prerogatives, Britain risks corroding its “special relationship” with the United States—something that, in various incarnations (and under different appellations), has been a pillar of British foreign policy for the past century.
Some of Britain’s recent behavior during this crisis of confidence can be explained by domestic woes. The fact that there was a serious prospect of Scotland going independent last year—a prospect that may raise its head again after the general election in May—has put the handbrake on any discussions of grand strategy, even as the United Kingdom prepares its first Strategic Defence and Security Review since 2010. But we have also seen the return of some familiar idiosyncrasies. It has long been part of the British condition to see itself as a moral arbiter on the world stage. This has not always come with an accurate sense of Britain’s actual leverage. Lord Macauley said a long time ago that “there is nothing so ridiculous as the British public in a periodic fit of morality.” Yet, despite massive cuts in defense spending, Britons still like to have their say on world affairs whenever the opportunity arises—and to feel that their voice matters. On March 10, the House of Lords held a four-hour debate on “soft power.” The gap between Britain’s sense of itself and the reality of the world in which it engages is in danger of becoming a chasm. This has echoes of the interwar years, when the country styled itself as peacemaker-in-chief and was extremely slow to read the runes as the world around it caught fire.
The British condition has not gone unnoticed in Washington, where even the most Anglophilic voices have expressed disquiet about recent developments. Yet even that disquiet, however well intentioned, usually rests on a rather shallow and hence unstable basis of understanding. It thus risks causing anxiety over the wrong things. The “special relationship” may or may not be in jeopardy, but one needs to take a step back from this debate to see the bigger picture. Of greater significance are shifts in the underlying worldviews that have bound Anglo-Saxon political cultures together for a very long time indeed. If you’re in a fretting mood, here is a subject truly worthy of your energy. Indeed, if you’re concerned about “world order”, you have to remember that this very notion is an inherently Anglo-American one.
The “special relationship”—a Churchillian creation at the conclusion of World War II—and the Anglo-American worldview on which it is founded are often conflated. The former presupposes a unique or privileged alliance. Much more important are the shared experiences and presuppositions that antedate this partnership, which are more durable than the state of diplomatic relations between the two countries at any given time. They relate not simply to language and a shared heritage, but to the strategic culture of both nations—what Nathan Leites might have called their “operational codes.” The British Empire may still provoke controversy in the United States among historians and the historically minded, but it is nonetheless more relevant to contemporary American conceptions of global leadership than any other classical precedent. Hence, the most relevant historical lessons for today lie not in the details of countless summits between Presidents and Prime Ministers, or even in shared experiences during two World Wars, the Cold War, or through the post-September era. They reside in two interrelated phenomena: the shared assumptions about “grand strategy” that determine how both nations have conducted themselves on the global stage, and the recurrent patterns of behavior that still characterize the conduct of both. These constitute a special relationship of a deeper kind: one stretched between necessity and hope, but that points the way to what may be called a “higher realism.”
Two fairly recent anniversaries—a bicentenary and a centenary—invite reflection on the origins of the Anglo-American worldview, or at least its shaping and gestation. The bicentenary was of the Treaty of Ghent of December 1814, which marked the conclusion of the War of 1812. The ending of that war is significant because it helped delineate separate spheres of influence, and also indicated how both nations were to pursue their interests thereafter. The outcome was an odd synergy born of mutual necessity that few would have predicted at the time.
The second significant anniversary was the outbreak of the World War a hundred years later. The United States did not join Britain at the outset of that war, of course. When it did enter the theater in 1917, however, it did so in a way that laid the foundation for unprecedented cooperation during the century that followed. Although it was vague, a shared Anglo-American conception of global governance emerged from the war that hoped to set international affairs on a new footing. Supra-nationalism in the Wilsonian image failed, but the Anglo-American commitment to a liberal international order outlasted it and was reconstituted at later points. This commitment has prevented a slide into the full excesses of a Hobbesian dystopia in the international arena on more than one occasion, and it may yet do so again.
At the time of the burning of the White House and the Capitol in 1814, America was very much a second-tier priority for Britain, which had been at war with France for more than twenty years. Britain had nearly all its financial, military, and diplomatic resources geared toward the prosecution of the European war, which had finally pushed Napoleon to the brink of defeat. When American diplomats met with their British counterparts in Ghent in 1814, the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, was engaged elsewhere, trying to cajole the rest of Europe into staying together long enough to take Paris.
Castlereagh, a hero of Henry Kissinger’s A World Restored (1954) and Philip Bobbitt’s The Shield of Achilles (2003), is often feted for his skill on the European stage, thanks to his emphasis on concert diplomacy and the balance of power, and for his suspicion of abstractions and idealism in the international sphere. As his biographer, I believe he has been given less credit than he deserves for being the first British Foreign Secretary to emphasize the community of interests that might emerge between Britain and America, “always holding in mind”, he wrote, “that there are no two states whose friendly relations are of more practical benefit to each other, or whose hostility so inevitably and immediately entails upon both most serious mischief.” In February 1816, after his return from the Continent, Castlereagh told the House of Commons that it was his “most earnest wish” to discountenance jealousy between two countries “whose interests were more naturally and closely connected.” He hoped that the course the government of each country was pursuing “was such as would consolidate the subsisting peace, and promote harmony between the nations, so as to prevent on either side the recurrence of any acts of animosity.”
Richard Rush, the American Ambassador in England at this time, detested the smog that descended on London so thickly that the locals lit the streetlights at noon. “I could not see people in the street from my windows. I am tempted to ask, how the English became great with so little day-light?” He found illumination in his partnership with Castlereagh—who hailed from an Irish family that had supported the American Revolution. “His whole reception to me was very conciliatory”, Rush enthused after their first meeting, at which Castlereagh revealed that he had known President James Monroe during his time in England. Castlereagh, Rush recorded, “spoke of the prosperity of the United States, which he said he heard of with pleasure: remarking that the prosperity of one commercial nation contributed to that of others.”
Tensions between the two countries were not quite so easy to eradicate, however, despite these warm and evidently sincere mutual sentiments. At the end of 1914, the historian William Archibald Dunning of Columbia University produced The British Empire and the United States: A Review of Their Relations During the Century of Peace Following the Treaty of Ghent. The book contained an introduction by Viscount James Bryce, the Liberal politician, jurist, and recently retired Ambassador to the United States. Looking back at the then-past century, Bryce took the line that Anglo-American relations proved that two nations with clashing interests could keep a peace, if they worked conscientiously for it.
While there had been no outright rupture in these one hundred years, Dunning explained, many quarrels had tested the relationship. The disarmament of the Great Lakes and the promulgation of the Monroe Doctrine had helped diffuse some tensions after 1814. But then came the “roaring forties”, the expansion of America westward and southward, which touched off a series of new boundary disputes with Canada, quarrels over Mexico and Central America, and controversy over British liberties taken with American ships in the name of extinguishing the slave trade. Tensions peaked under President Polk and Prime Minister Palmerston, but diplomats worked quietly behind the scenes to prevent the outbreak of hostilities. Then the American Civil War presented Britain with the opportunity to encourage the country to fracture in a way that suited its own commercial and strategic interests. Yet, as Bryce pointed out, English liberals like John Bright and Goldwin Smith resisted the temptation to support the South and regarded the Union’s prospective abolition of slavery as sufficient reason to stay out of the fight.
In 1912, that caricature of Prussian militarism, General Friedrich von Bernhardi, whose books had recently been translated into English, mocked Britain’s failure to support the Confederates and dismember a rival; he took it as evidence of the typical Anglo-Saxon sentimental moralism that would ultimately be its downfall. Reviewing Dunning’s book for the Times Literary Supplement in the dark days of 1914, Sir Sidney Low, colonial historian at King’s College London, wrote,
Fortunately this conception of Realpolitik has not been accepted by English statesmen. . . . . For behind the image of the Great War there gleams faintly the image of a Greater Peace, and those who have time to turn from the overwhelming anxieties of the moment are pondering as to the methods by which, if it be possible, humanity may be preserved from similar disasters in the future.
The shared desire to make something better out of the Great War—to set international affairs on a new footing—was the basis on which both Britain and America claimed to be fighting. Official British propaganda, in which cabinet ministers combined efforts with academics, peddled this line time and time again, but a receptacle for it already existed in the public psyche. There was massive popular and intellectual investment in the notion that international affairs could be cured of the scourge of war, and that Anglo-American cooperation and avoidance of war despite clashing interests could provide a model for others to follow. (Had Macauley not died in 1859, we no doubt would have gotten another famous quip from him at the time.) It was no coincidence that the very notion of a science of “international relations” was born in this era, and had its first home in Anglo-American political discourse.
In addition to this burgeoning intellectual endeavor, a more important change was taking place in the relationship of the United States to the rest of the world: an awakening to geopolitical consciousness in which Theodore Roosevelt played the leading part. This is why Roosevelt is the hero of Henry Kissinger’s latest book, World Order. Roosevelt began his career with The Naval War of 1812, a book published when he was just 23 years old. Yet this did not leave him with any lasting enmity toward Britain. Indeed, as Kissinger describes, “Rooseveltian grand strategy” took shape in his dialogue with his English counterparts, such as the British diplomat Cecil Spring Rice, a close friend who had been the best man at his wedding. In a 1907 letter that is eminently applicable to the 21st century, Roosevelt bemoaned the “melancholy fact that the countries which are most humanitarian, which are most interested in internal improvement, tend to grow weaker compared with other countries which possess a less altruistic civilization.” Looking to both London and Washington, he denounced “that pseudo-humanitarianism which treats advance of civilization as necessarily and rightfully implying a weakening of the fighting spirit and which therefore invites destruction of the advanced civilization by some less advanced type.”
America, which had traditionally seen itself as free from the vices of European colonialism, was waking up to the realities of great power politics. It was another naval strategist and historian—another man well versed in the precedent of British power in the 19th century—who put most of the meat on the bones: Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, who had read Roosevelt’s work on 1812. Mahan was courted by naval strategists in imperial Germany, but his writing had more discernible impact in England. As another indication of the cross-fertilization of strategic thinking, Mahan featured prominently in Eyre Crowe’s famous “Memorandum on the Present State of British Relations with France and Germany” of January 1, 1907. This memorandum was directed to the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, and is regarded as the most important cornerstone of the strategy that led Britain to war against Germany in 1914.
Crowe, a senior Foreign Ministry official, warned his countrymen that the nature of British power—based on “vast overseas colonies and dependencies” and a naval force that made Britain “the neighbour of every country accessible by sea”—would inevitably cause jealousy and resistance. For that reason, it was in Britain’s self-interest to “harmonize with the general desires and ideals common to all mankind”, and to ensure that it was “closely identified with the primary and vital interests of a majority, or as many as possible, of the other nations.” It followed, therefore, that Britain had “a direct and positive interest in the maintenance of the independence of nations, and therefore must be the natural enemy of any country threatening the independence of others, and the natural protector of the weaker communities.” Any nation seeking to dominate or subjugate the others, then—any nation threatening to upset the “balance of power”—need be resisted. This amounted to a self-interested argument for Britain’s active support for a rules-based international order—a seed of the higher realism.
In his book The Pity of War (1999), Niall Ferguson critiqued Crowe’s assessment for misreading German intentions and encouraging the policy that led to World War I, something Ferguson regards as a great strategic error in British foreign policy. Without getting into that debate, the point here is that the foundations of a shared Anglo-American worldview were crystallizing in the years before 1914. Those who encouraged a reluctant Woodrow Wilson to enter the theater of war made similar geostrategic arguments, utilizing Mahan’s work but combined with reflections on the 19th-century British global system, as Eyre Crowe himself had done. As Robert E. Osgood described in his seminal book, Ideals and Self-Interest in America’s Foreign Relations (1953), “There existed during the long prelude to intervention a significant challenge to America’s traditional attitude toward national security.”
The key intellectual protagonists of this “new realism” were three editors at the New Republic, all of them Anglophiles who had travelled in Europe at the outset of the war: Walter Weyl, Herbert Croly, and Walter Lippmann. Lippmann led the way with the publication of Stakes of Diplomacy (1915), which he began by invoking Mahan. What was most interesting about the book was that it offered the first sustained discussion of realpolitik, a German word generally used in pejorative terms by the English. Lippmann (the scion of an aristocratic American German-Jewish family and fluent in German) believed that his countrymen could do with a dose of realpolitik. Like Roosevelt, he derided pacifism and “peace-at-any-price propaganda”, not because they entailed the abandonment of force, but because they would benefit the least democratic countries at the expense of the most vulnerable ones. He also evoked the prospect of “some coalition of the West” to secure world order in future years. Western security and commerce were also to be tied to the stabilization of “backward countries” and the spread of “progressive government.”
American realpolitik, in other words, should be predicated on the importance of maintaining a liberal world order. America’s “only choice” was “between being the passive victim of international disorder and resolving to be an active leader in ending it.” Variations on this theme—that American realism began on a front-footed commitment to maintaining a liberal international equilibrium—appear in Kissinger’s World Order and in the work of Robert Kagan (both his book Dangerous Nation and his much-debated May 2014 New Republic essay “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire”). It points to a lesson sometimes forgotten, because America’s entrance onto the global stage is often viewed through the prism of Woodrow Wilson’s unmoored, utopian, and ultimately calamitous internationalism.
The misleading nature of this narrative is unpicked in a recent book by Adam Tooze, formerly of Yale University’s grand strategy project: The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order (2014). The failure of Wilsonianism, the collapse of the peace movement, and the weakness of the League of Nations in the interwar years are usually presented as evidence of the utter impracticability of a liberal world order. For Tooze, this misses the point. Such efforts were indeed deeply flawed, not least because of Wilson’s own uncertainty about America’s superpower status. But the outbreak of World War II proved not that liberal international order was impractical but that it was absolutely necessary, albeit in a more realistic form. As Tooze puts it, “The restless search for a new way of securing order and peace was the expression not of deluded idealism, but of a higher form of realism.”
From outside the Anglo-American world, sharp observers were quick to identify the potential of what England and America had in their grasp after 1918. Friedrich Meinecke, the foremost German historian of raison d’état, addressed these questions in his classic text Machiavellianism: The Doctrine of Raison D’État and Its Place in Modern History (1924). In the 1910s, Meinecke, a cheerleader for German militarism, had been one of those who condemned the hypocrisy of the Anglo-Saxon world. The English in particular, he complained, went around moralizing about the independence of small nations when, in truth of deed, they owed their position to the bullying tactics of the Royal Navy and boasted the biggest empire of all. In a brilliant dissection of British power projection he described how, having gained predominance through brute force, the English suddenly changed the script: They “showed an increasing tendency to change the sword of the naked power-policy, which the English always pursued, into the sword of the executor of the law—whether summoned to the task by God or by justice and morality.” Thus they talked of the need to preserve international treaties and maritime laws, while failing to mention that those laws had been crafted in their image and in their interests.
In 1914, frustrated German nationalists had predicted that such a system, based as it was on a form of historical amnesia, was doomed to collapse. But German defeat in the World War caused Meinecke to think again. The Anglo-Saxons were indeed hypocritical, but were far less naive than he had assumed. Hypocrisy, perhaps, was a useful tool in international affairs. What they practiced was, in his reformed view, “the most effective kind of Machiavellianism, which could be brought by the national Will of power-policy to become unconscious of itself, and to appear (not only to others, but also to itself) as being pure humanity, candour and religion.”
Meinecke refused to believe that a true League of Nations could ever be realized. Instead of the League, however, he believed that the shared strategic culture of America and Britain might point to a different type of international order. It may “perhaps occur that the era of . . . international conflict . . . may be brought to an end not by a genuine League of Nations, but by the world-hegemony of the Anglo-Saxon powers, in whose hands the strongest physical powers of the globe are already concentrated.” Such “a pax anglo-saxonica would not be by any means ‘ideal’”, Meinecke wrote, but its hidden genius was that it would “be more endurable for the individual life of . . . [other] nations” than dominance by other powers.
E.H. Carr relied heavily on Meinecke in his book The Twenty Years’ Crisis (1939). He noted that the British had long been “eloquent supporters of the notion that the maintenance of British supremacy is the performance of a duty to mankind” and that America was adopting much the same line. But Carr, a totemic figure in modern-day “realism”, could never quite reconcile himself to the hypocrisy and cant he saw in Anglo-American political culture.
Carr denounced both Roosevelt’s foreign policy and Eyre Crowe’s memorandum of 1907. Theories about international morality were “always the product of a dominant group which identifies itself with the community as a whole, and which possesses facilities denied to subordinate groups.” He criticized Winston Churchill’s statement that “the fortunes of the British Empire and its glory are inseparably interwoven with the fortunes of the world”, juxtaposing it with a statement by German historian Wilhelm Dibelius that England was “the solitary Power with a national programme which, while egotistic through and through, at the same time promises to the world something which the world passionately desires: order, progress, and eternal peace.” The idea of a “pax Germanica or a pax Japanica . . . was a priori no more absurd than the conception of pax Britannica would have seemed in the reign of Elizabeth or of a pax Americana in the days of Washington and Madison.”
Yet, once again, these notions lasted through another World War. While Carr railed against such illusions, he did not appreciate just how durable they were. George Orwell understood. In his 1941 essay “The Lion and the Unicorn” Orwell wrote that hypocrisy was a necessary part of the “higher realism” that kept the West on an even keel:
[H]ypocrisy is a powerful safeguard . . . a symbol of the strange mix of reality and illusion, democracy and privilege, humbug and decency, the subtle network of compromises, by which the nation keeps itself in familiar shape.
Britain was swift to reconcile itself to the fact that the United States had inherited its role as the strongest nation on earth. In 1928, a diplomat at the British Foreign Office described how, in the form of the United States, Britain was faced
with a phenomenon for which there is no parallel in our modern history—a state twenty-five times as large, five times as wealthy, three times as populous, twice as ambitious, almost invulnerable, and at least our equal in prosperity, vital energy, technical equipment and industrial strength.
The problem, which modern British diplomats could do well to note, was that “in almost every field, the advantages to be derived from mutual co-operation are greater for us than for them.”
The recurrent challenge for Britain, much diminished by the war, was to keep America fully engaged on the international stage. Churchill understood better than anyone the importance of a Pax Anglo-Saxonica, and Britain’s selfish strategic interest in preserving it. This, above anything else, was his legacy to British and American foreign policy, both in theory and practice.
The appeal of such an arrangement was, of course, more immediately obvious in Britain, as the smaller and weaker of the two. For that reason, Britain’s first socialist Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, was as staunch an advocate of an Anglo-American alliance as any. Leon Trotsky bitterly described how MacDonald pointed “with pride to this dog collar, calling it the best instrument of peace.” Clement Attlee, the first Prime Minister of the majority-Labour government that defeated Churchill in 1945, also recognized the importance of staying as close as possible to the United States and keeping it engaged on the international stage. Thus Britain led the way on the formation of NATO, which formally tied American power to the canvas of contending European political expressions. To an extent that is often forgotten, even the British Left conceived the struggles against both Nazism and Communism in remarkably Manichean terms, as a struggle between totalitarian forms of governance and “Western” values of freedom and the Enlightenment. This thread runs through the premierships of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair and all the way to David Cameron, though his countrymen seem unable to grasp the point.
As Tooze explains in The Deluge, one of the main reasons for the collapse of the interwar liberal order was the revanchism of those nations that resented their place in the “chain gang” that marched behind the noble Anglo-American vanguard: Germany, Italy, Japan, and Russia. More important was the unwillingness of the liberal nations to do what was necessary to preserve it. It took the tragedy of a second World War to demonstrate the dangers of American aloofness and detachment from foreign squabbles. The Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor, like the German U-boat attacks in World War I, seemed to confirm Lippmann’s fundamental argument: Americans could not enjoy the benefits of an inherited Anglo-Saxon world order without provoking the rage of others, or avoid suffering the consequences when it began to unravel due to neglect.
It was Meinecke’s student, the German-Jewish émigré historian Felix Gilbert, who best encapsulated the new intellectual consensus that underpinned America’s entry into another World War. As he explained, it was “considered highly desirable to emphasize that, if the United States should enter the war, this should happen not for Wilsonian idealistic reasons, but for reasons of Realpolitik, i.e. reasons of national security.”
In 1956, Arnold Wolfers, a Swiss-born scholar of geopolitics who established Yale University’s Institute of International Studies in 1935, joined with Laurence W. Martin to produce The Anglo-American Tradition in Foreign Affairs (1956), an edited collection that began with excerpts from Sir Thomas More and Thomas Hobbes and ended with Woodrow Wilson. The aim was to “explain some of the peculiarities of the contemporary British and American approach to world affairs, which often puzzle the foreign observer and lead him either to praise the special virtues of Anglo-Saxon policy or condemn what he considers its hypocritical wrappings.” Wolfers argued that the distinguishing characteristic of Continental theorists was that they operated in the face of constant external threats to their national existence. Meanwhile, the Anglo-Americans had the advantage of relative security from foreign invasion; they were both islands of sorts. Theirs “was a philosophy of choice, then, which was bound to be ethical, over against a philosophy of necessity, in which forces beyond moral control were believed to prevail.”
On occasion, a philosophy of choice could lend itself to excessive moralism and self-righteousness. But the Anglo-American worldview had a self-correcting mechanism within it. Referring to Meinecke again, Wolfers noted, crucially, that there was “room for hypocrisy” in such a position. It began with a belief that justice and reason could guide national behavior overseas. But moral conduct need not be absolute, and prudence cautioned against taking unnecessary risks. In such a world, similarly minded nations (which took to the seas for trade rather than invasion, and acted out of choice rather than in the name of necessity) were to be welcomed as partners, just as Britain had reconciled itself to the rise of America after 1814.
In inheriting Britain’s position of global dominance, the United States also unconsciously adopted many of its traits. Two myths, one British and one American, have sometimes obscured the extent of the similarities between the two.
The British myth is that the United Kingdom wielded a softer, more subtle form of power, replete with a more sophisticated diplomatic armory; that Britain was to America, in that too famous and nauseating phrase, what the Greeks were to the Romans. As Meinecke noted, this misconception comes from a convenient amnesia. Acts of belligerence and preemption were a recurrent feature of British behavior on the international stage. Britain was hyperactive and ferocious in defense of its interests and frequently engaged in renegade episodes of piracy, coercion, blockading, and bombardment—a formula applied across the Mediterranean, the Baltic, and farther afield as well. One might even say that Britain was the original “dangerous nation.”
The American myth is that the British Empire of the 19th century represented something immeasurably different from the American Century that followed it. The truth is that Britain similarly had been wary of conquering large portions of foreign land and garrisoning whole nations in the manner of the Romans. Compared to European counterparts, its standing army remained small. Maintaining access to ports and waterways, preserving trade routes, and preventing other great powers from invading its sphere of influence were its guiding foreign policy principles. It always preferred that its colonies govern themselves, though not at the risk of instability, which seemed always to put off the day of genuine self-governance. For Britain, too, non-intervention was always the preferred position, though—in a pattern that President Obama might recognize at least dimly from his Libya decisions—it was often the staunchest anti-interventionists and anti-imperialists who ended up embarking on the costliest interventions (as William Gladstone did in Egypt). America’s own creep into Central and South America in the name of commerce, stability, and good governance was justified with a similarly convoluted liberal-imperial rationale.
Both, moreover, have striven to achieve a “balance of power” in the international system. As President Nixon said of his foreign policy, the aim was to assume the “position the British were in in the 19th century, when among the great powers of Europe they’d always play the weaker against the stronger.” At a speech given at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London in 1982, Kissinger noted how, at the end of World War II, many American leaders condemned Churchill as
needlessly obsessed with power politics, too rigidly anti-Soviet, too colonialist in his attitude to what is now called the Third World, and too little interested in building the fundamentally new international order towards which American idealism has always tended.
At that time the British, meanwhile, saw the Americans as “naive, moralistic, and evading responsibility for helping secure the global equilibrium.” Ultimately, however, Kissinger argued, “Britain had a decisive influence over America’s rapid awakening to maturity” in the second half of the 20th century. Since that time, he added rather ruefully, “a rather ironic reversal of positions took place”: The United States was now “accused of being obsessed with the balance of power, and it is our European allies who are charged by us with moralistic escapism.”
Certain things were not lost in translation, however. Above all, Britain bequeathed to America “a convenient form of ethical egoism”, as Kissinger called it, which held that “what was good for Britain was best for the rest.” The “special relationship” may be creaking, but the world today could still benefit from a Leviathan with a skin thick enough to bear the allegation of hypocrisy, all in the name of a higher realism. Alas, for that to work the Leviathan must believe in its own benign nature, however self-serving that may be. Too much humility and not enough ethical egoism, it turns out, is not good for international security. That is the precondition of a higher realism that we misunderstand at our peril—and not only ours.