Saturday, 17 February 2007

On a hiding to nowhere?


- LORD PALMERSTON, 19th century Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary.

What has become of the much-vaunted Anglo-American “Special Relationship”? This largely mythical beast, which has been an axiom of British, if not American, foreign policy ever since the Second World War partnership forged between Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, still mesmerises British policymakers.

Yet it is obvious to practically everyone else that the “Special Relationship”, if it still functions meaningfully at all, is a much more one-sided affair than its British propagandists like to think. In fact, it always has been, even in the heady wartime days of the Churchill-Roosevelt love-in. As is clear from Churchill’s war memoirs, he was unable to prevail over the Americans on many aspects of operational strategy in the conduct of military operations in Europe, and even less successful in preventing Roosevelt – already a dying man – from being bamboozled by Stalin at Yalta into agreeing on a post-war division of Europe into ‘spheres of influence’ which resulted in the Iron Curtain and the subsequent years of Cold War. The extent to which Churchill himself modified the original drafts of his memoirs to avoid annoying the Americans, and to keep his US publisher-paymasters sweet, has only recently been revealed by David Reynolds in his fascinating book In Command of History.

As Secretary of State Dean Acheson remarked after the war, “Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role”. The loss of empire was not unwelcome to US politicians, who had been educated in the post-revolutionary tradition of seeing Britain as malignly imperialist and far more macchiavellian than she in fact was.

The Suez debacle, when the Americans effectively pulled the plug on the British-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt, was the opportunity for the United States to assume the dominant Western role in Middle Eastern policy, the increasingly bitter fruits of which are still being harvested.

Prime Minister Blair and President Bush are both fond of proclaiming themselves disciples of Churchill, though one doubts whether he would have relished the compliment. The spectacle of “Yo-Yo Blair” trotting fawningly along behind the most right-wing US administration in living memory is humiliating. He increasingly resembles the tiger-riding young lady of Riga in the limerick: “they returned from the ride with the lady inside, and a smile on the face of the tiger”.

How long this state of affairs, which belies the sage wisdom of Lord Palmerston, will continue is anybody’s guess, but there does not seem much prospect of ending it soon. Even if it is no longer seen as a national asset by some British politicians and diplomats, they keep very quiet about it. But some Americans are more candid, and the following observations by Kendall Myers, a senior US State Department official, at a public lecture in Washington DC last November [as reported by Toby Harnden] are significant – although needless to say they were promptly disowned by both US and UK government sources:

"There never really has been a special relationship, or at least not one we've noticed.

"As a State Department employee, now I will say something even worse: it has been from the very beginning very one-sided.

"The State Department and the American Embassy in London, by God they'll be pushing the special relationship till the end of time.

"The last prime minister to resist American pressure was Neville Chamberlain who was a much more brilliant figure in British diplomacy [than Winston Churchill].

"We typically ignore them and take no notice. We say, ‘There are the Brits coming to tell us how to run our empire. Let's park them'. It is a sad business and I don't think it does them justice.

"It's hard for me to believe that any British leader who follows Tony Blair will maintain the kind of relationship he has. There'll be much more of a distant relationship and certainly no more wars of choice in the future.

"Harold Wilson was a great deal more clever in my opinion than Tony Blair. He managed to fool us all on Vietnam.

"The deal was not one cent, not one Bobby, not one Johnny, nobody, not one participant in the Vietnam war. Wilson succeeded by sounding good but doing nothing… Blair got it the other way round and in the end joined in this Iraq adventure.

"One of the most brilliant prime ministerships of modern times was brought a cropper by the Iraq war. He'll never recover in my opinion. It's been ruined for all time. That is tragic.

"The key fact was the British perception of the special relationship that when the Americans decide a major issue of national importance the British will not oppose. The way that Iraq developed it would have been extremely difficult for Tony Blair to have done a Harold Wilson.

"Tony Blair's a modern Gladstone. He really believes it. He may not have believed WMD – I don't know anybody knew that – he essentially believed this was in the West's interest to remove this evil dictator.

"Unfortunately, Tony Blair's background was as an actor and not an historian. If only he'd read a book on the 1920s he might have hesitated.

"I think it was probably a done deal from the beginning. It was a one-sided relationship and that one-sided relationship was entered into I think with open eyes. Tony Blair perhaps hoped that he could bring George Bush along, that he could convince him but of course George Bush has many other dimensions politically and intellectually. I can't think of anything [Blair] got on the asset side of the ledger.

"The more serious issue that confronts Britain is not the strength of the special relationship but the strength of ties to Europe.

"Tony Blair could sound European on a good day, could occasionally pronounce French well and he wears blue jeans with the best Americans. I just think the role of Britain as a bridge between Europe and the United States is vanishing before our eyes.

"What I fear is, and what I think is, that the British will draw back from the US without moving closer to Europe. In that sense, London's bridge is falling down."


Richard W. Symonds said...

Excellent, AC - thanks.

On a good day, my political instincts tell me that we (UK) will move closer to Europe - we are in Europe, so we are European.

On a bad day, my political instincts tell me that we (UK) will end up as Oceania's 'Airstrip One' (Orwell 1984) - a satellite 51st US state - to all intents and purposes 'invaded an occupied'.

On a dreamy night, my political instincts tell me we can be independent of both - but that's a dream.

Richard W. Symonds said...

"No man is a Iland, entire of it self..."

Toby Lewis said...

A very interesting speech. It is incredibly sad because there is much truth to it. Hopefully no prime minister will be so trusting and naive in future. As to the European speculation and our loss of power in the world, I'm sceptical that it is as bad as he makes out but we'll probably have to see what happens.

yellowduck said...

Blair bashing is so passé.

anticant said...

Well, Blair is passe, but he's still there....

Jose said...

The British position re Europe is a strange one. Britain is, but is not, in Europe. Britain is European and intervenes in all matters affecting the European Union, but also it ignores those links and support policies that are not approved by the majority of European countries, as was the case of Iraq.

To me it is clear that the EU is forming following economic dictates, we the people have got nothing to do with what is happening in Europe although we have been made to believe that we have.

Bridges between the UK and both America and Europe? I see Britain has a permanent bridge to America and a circumstancial one to Europe. Something that its PM does not try even to hide.

There are, however, too many impediments in Europe for an easy going of the Union, among them the pacts about to be signed between Poland and the Czech Republic for American bases in their territories.

The German attitude, too, does not speak marvels for a perfect team work.

In sum I would say that the initial idea of a united Europe is not so brilliant as those who thought first of it boasted.

Because I have reached the conclusion that those who are delaying an effective union are not Britain, Poland or the Czechs or even Germany, but those who are not in communion with the US.

Pray I were wrong.

tyger said...

Another great post antacant - you do spoil us.

Over in Tallinn, but trying to get round everyone's blog.

tyger said...

I agree with the thrust of this post - that alliances should be mutually benificial. But remember Palmerson was writing from a position of strength.