The British political class loves to talk of the special relationship between the US and Britain based on the “common values” the two countries share. But cross the Atlantic and you’ll hear very little said of this “special relationship”. As Victor Bulmer-Thomas, former Chatham House director, puts it, “The bilateral relationship with the United States may be ‘special’ to Britain, but the US has never described it as more than ‘close’.”
No doubt, Britain is an important ally of the US. But it is by no means the sole, weightiest, or closest of the many allies the US has across the world in Europe, Asia, or the Middle East.
Currently, the US is busy forging a strong alliance with India that includes close nuclear cooperation, as part of a longer-term containment strategy toward China, aimed at checking its growing influence in Asia.
In Europe, it is tightening its relations with former communist states, with plans to build a radar system in the Czech Republic and a bank of interceptor rocket missiles in Poland. These two countries, like others in eastern – or new – Europe, have become crucial for the American project of Nato enlargement, largely aimed at encircling Russia. Here lies one of the principal causes of the continuing deterioration in relations between Russia and the US – and consequently Britain.
Neither does Britain’s relation to the US compare with what binds the latter to Israel. Unlike the UK, Israel is not only a functional ally at the service of the US. It is a definer of its policies in the region, on whom Washington lavishes all kinds of support, financial, military and political. The strength of these ties is such that Washington has been prepared to risk its relations with the region as a whole, governments and nations, for Tel Aviv’s sake. If any relation qualifies for the title of “special”, surely this one does.
Political language is not neutral or transparent. What it conceals tends to be greater than what it reveals. Talk of “values we share with the US” is no exception. Britain is an ally of the US – albeit not its closest, or most important, but this has little to do with culture, and much to do with power balances and geo-political interests.
In the aftermath of the second world war, these “common values” our politicians incessantly blather about did not stop the US seeking to dismantle Britain’s imperial inheritance, marginalise its influence and occupy the position it had long held on the international stage.
Neither did they prevent the Eisenhower administration forcing a ceasefire on Britain during its war on Nasser’s Egypt in 1956. Dealing a deadly blow to Britain’s dominance in the region, the US demanded that the invasion stop, sponsored resolutions in the UN Security Council for a ceasefire and threatened to precipitate the collapse of the pound by selling its reserves of the currency. Humiliated, Britain withdrew in the space of a week, Eden resigned from office, and America emerged as the principal player in the Middle East.
And today, after years of good service, Blair has failed to convince the Bush administration to broaden his job description to include mediation between Israelis and Palestinians. Instead of a Middle East envoy empowered to negotiate a peace agreement as he had hoped, Blair’s mandate was trimmed to helping “build the economy and the state institutions” of a non-existing state. Blair, the “special friend”, had no choice but to accept his humble post and its modest funding derived not from the US, but largely from the EU. In international politics, as he is coming to learn the hard way, loyalty counts for very little.
It is time that we shook off the myth that what binds Britain to the US is the lofty values the two share. After all, culturally America is no closer to the UK than Ireland, New Zealand, or Sweden. The truth, unpalatable as it may be, is that since the second world war, Britain has had to swallow its pride and accept that the sun had set on the empire where it never sets, and that it now shone on the other side of the Atlantic. Thus was born the lie of “the special relationship”. Pragmatic old Britain resigned itself to the new “politics of regress”. If it can’t beat the new big boys on the field, it might as well join them. It may not do the dividing, but it will do all it can to have a slice of the cake.
That’s all very well when the going is good. The trouble for the UK, however, is that this strategy no longer yields benefits and an easy share of the spoils. Today, it has turned into a growing burden on Britain’s interests, damaging its international standing, overstretching its military capabilities and devouring the lives and limbs of its soldiers. The cost of the “special” relationship escalates with every American crisis on the ground, with the bloodbath in Iraq and insurgency in Afghanistan, as well as with the growth in public resentment towards the US and decline in its “soft power”. As America sinks into the quagmire, Britain inevitably follows suit. The price of this “unique” alliance is such that in countless angry protests across the world, the union flag is being burnt alongside the stars and stripes.
And if the US is a superpower, capable of absorbing its shocks, the same is sadly not true of the UK. It is an ageing power that can take few more strikes or blows, try to delude itself with the “special relationship” myth as it may.
First Published in The Guardian, Wednesday 1 August 2007