After a US State Department analyst had described his country’s relationship with Britain as “totally one-sided”, his government issued a quick denial, asserting that the relationship “is indeed a special one.” The problem with that riposte is that it lacks any tangible examples.
The Americans cannot argue that Tony Blair succeeded in persuading them to accept a major role for the United Nations in Iraq. Nor that he convinced the President to restart the roadmap peace discussions between Israel and the Palestinians. Our extradition treaty with America is asymmetrical and there are few British companies with contracts to “rebuild” Iraq (which is still being destroyed).
The Prime Minister has sacrificed his career by supporting George W Bush. He has humiliatingly offered to fly around the world preparing the way for the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. British body bags continue to arrive back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Blair has nothing to show for it.
The State Department analyst, Kendall Myers, was fair enough to comment that Britain has been an American poodle since the days of Winston Churchill. Of course he disguised it well because he was a colossus although his country had ceased to be. But even Churchill had limited influence on President Franklin Roosevelt as America and Russia divided Europe in the last months of World War II.
The post-war Labour government spent vastly more on defence than on the welfare state partly in an attempt to give Britain influence. Whilst it was deciding whether the UK should also develop an independent nuclear deterrent, the foreign secretary Ernest Bevin arrived back from demeaning negotiations in Washington. “I never wish to be spoken to like that by an American again,” he said, “ Britain must have the bomb”. (Similar hubristic arguments are made for renewing the deterrent today).
Britain accepts the role of poodle because successive governments have believed that that is better than playing no part at all. Politicians assume that voters would be unhappy if we did not sit at some real or imagined top table. Again the metaphor is applied to nuclear weapons: if we did not have them, we might lose our seat on the UN Security Council.
There is no evidence that Irish people or Luxembourgeois are unhappier than Britons because their country is never thought about in world affairs. Presumably with enormous GDPs per head they feel just fine.
But status does matter to the British, because we are used to being top dog. That sense of national destiny must by now be genetic since most people alive today cannot recall the glory days of a Royal Navy whose writ ran throughout the world and a map largely coloured red.
But the British clearly felt badly when under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan our influence in the world slipped fast. Evidently when Margaret Thatcher restored Britain’s sense of “mattering”, she was on an election winner.
Her example has been a powerful influence on Blair. I imagine him peering in the mirror each morning to ask himself: “In this situation what would Thatcher have done?” But she was both more skilful and luckier than Blair. With just two brief wars, the Falklands and the liberation of Kuwait (which she initiated before being deposed by her party), she established Britain’s place in world affairs. Blair has slogged it out in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, and in protracted engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq.
She was more skilful because she gave the illusion of being in charge. As a British battle axe she appeared to call the shots with President Reagan. With masterful spin she inverted the reality of British weakness and American strength when she demanded of President Bush senior: “Don’t go wobbly on me, George” (referring to Kuwait).
But Blair has been unlucky to come up against the combination of George W Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. Rarely has an administration been so gripped by an ideology as this one by the neoconservative view of foreign policy. Its certainties have left little room for outside, let alone foreign, influences. Would any other President and Defence Secretary have embarked on a war without a plan, indeed without even thinking they needed one?
Maybe the critical difference between Thatcher and Blair is that whilst both are fired by messianic self-confidence, Thatcher believed in Britain and Blair does not. Everything in her upbringing taught her that Britain was best, and what we lacked in military power she could make up for with a swing of the handbag. Blair is from the generation that found British pretensions absurd. To the limited extent that Blair was interested in British history, there was much in it that would embarrass him. Just last week he was apologising for the slave trade.
It was Dean Acheson, formerly President Truman’s Secretary of State, who in 1962 said that Britain had lost an empire but not yet discovered a role. Because the Americans still perceive us as old-fashioned imperialists they care little for our advice, although one quick look at American troop deployments around the globe tells us who the imperialists are today and why our ideas might be useful.
The Acheson remark is still often quoted in Britain because it hurt so much. We really are too sensitive. America has been more uncertain of its role than we have. It has veered from isolationism to interventionism and back again. Sometimes it is the exponent of the pure power play (Nixon and Reagan), and sometimes of foreign policy mysticism (Carter and Clinton), and at other times of both simultaneously (this administration). Bush invaded Iraq to show Islam who was boss, and also to bring the wonders of American-style democracy to benighted peoples.
By contrast, British post-war foreign policy has generally been pragmatic and can be defined in a phrase: never choose between America and Europe. The policy perfectly suits our geography and culture. Anthony Eden clashed with America over Suez and it finished him. Ted Heath galloped towards Europe, and Thatcher in her last years galloped away from it, and neither was a good experience.
Blair has been the most faithful exponent of the “don’t choose” policy, but ironically one of the least successful. Lacking Thatcher’s national self-confidence, he never presses home his demands with Bush, a failure readily leaked by civil servants. In Europe Blair has lost his influence not so much because he is regarded as pro-American, but rather because he carries no influence with the Americans.
The bridge that we are meant to provide between America and Europe is “disappearing before our eyes” (as Myers said) not because the policy is ill-conceived or bankrupt, but because of exceptional obtuseness in Washington and unprecedented fawning from Downing Street.
In fairness, I should add that continental Europe’s unprecedented irresponsibility has been a big factor too. Germany and France are the woodworm in NATO. After 9/11 they offered America full support including in Afghanistan. Today the NATO operation there is under European command as they would wish. But they will not allow their soldiers to do any real fighting. In a war where one side (the Taliban) has huge numbers willing to die, while the other (the Europeans) has small numbers mainly unwilling to die, the result cannot be long in doubt.
As both Gordon Brown and David Cameron distance themselves from Bush, both know nonetheless that closeness to America is “the only game in town”. The estrangement of America from Europe is a global catastrophe for which Blair is less culpable than most national leaders. His successors must not abandon his policy of closeness with America. They must just lift Britain off its knees.