(An overly simplified, probably overly opinionated overview of the “Special Relationship”)
Britain’s position in the post-WWII Europe was always envisaged by the Americans as the middle-man. They liked the idea of a united Europe after having (albeit belatedly) found themselves embroiled in two rather unpleasant wars on the continent, and saw a unified western European democracy – of a similar size to the continental United States – as a potential handy buffer against the potential threat of Stalin’s Russia.
Winston Churchill, meanwhile, while formulating post-war possibilities with his American counterparts (it was the half-American Churchill who coined the phrase “Special Relationship”, after all), reckoned Britain’s role to be not so much middle-man, as the kindly – yet firm – uncle, standing on the sidelines of a Europe (excluding Britain) that he hoped would become ever more unified, occasionally barking orders when the continental lot stepped out of line. It was primarily thanks to this vision, based on a pre-war understanding of Britain’s global power (and certainly before the loss of India, something Churchill would never have countenanced) that led Churchill and then his lieutenant and successor, Anthony Eden, to ignore all the initial talks and refuse to participate in the Treaty of Rome back in 1957, that formed what has become the European Union.
Britain’s refusal to take the leading role in Europe that the US wanted her to take straight after the Second World War has been the cause of a lot of problems:
- The European Community has instead ended up being led by France by default (of the original six, Germany and Italy had to atone, and the BeNeLux countries were all far too small), with successive French governments – especially those of De Gaulle, who was evidently not quite such an idiot as Churchill had always thought – ensuring that it was always la belle France which got all the best deals in the new, ever-closer alliance.
- Britain, having lost her Empire during a four decade post-war decline and saddled with vast debts to the US for wartime assistance during much of that time, soon ceased being one of the most powerful nations in the world, and swiftly begun to be ignored by her erstwhile American buddies. By the mid-1950s, British dependence on the US for support in overseas ventures and aspirations became startlingly underlined with the American financial sabotage of the Anglo-French attempt to retake the Suez Canal. A decade later, Britain subtly returned the favour by refusing to get embroiled in Vietnam. By the late 60s and 70s, though, the US really couldn’t have cared less what Britain was up to – a tiny country on the brink of economic collapse was hardly a valuable ally – even if she had, fianlly, decided to join the EEC, just as the US had wanted her to in the first place. Sadly, though, EEC membership came far too late for Britain to take the leading role that the US had envisioned for their desired European-American interpreter.
- America, meanwhile, by maintaining a fairly realistic outlook on the global situation (bar the notable excpetions of Vietnam and – seemingly – Iraq), went from strength to strength, and had no problem at all in shaking off Britain’s feeble grasp on her bootstraps as and when the miniscule extra weight of keeping the Brits happy became a problem. (Remember all that US financial and military support during the Falklands War? You don’t? Precisely…)
So, the “Special Relationship” was a term invented by a Brit – notably at a time when Britain had far more to gain out of the relationship than the US, as for the whole of the late 20th century – and not only that, but a Brit whose own understanding of transatlantic relations was clouded by his own American ancestry and who was so convinced by the ties that a common language could bring that he even wrote a book, A History of the English Speaking Peoples, to propagate his theories. Before Churchill, the reason that Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada had been granted Dominion status within the Empire had nothing to do with language, everything to do with them having “more civilised” white political elites. America, meanwhile, was thought of by 19th century Englishmen as an uncivilised backwater, little better than the wilds of Africa, and certainly not as a country with which the world’s largest economy and mightiest military would want anything to do.
When Britain was top dog, America held little interest; now America’s top dog, Britain holds little interest.
In other words, I’m trying to work out precisely why US State Department analyst Kendal Myers’ comments have caused such a stir. Who, with any broader grasp of mid- to late- twentieth centry Anglo-American relations than those posited in works written by the deluded Churchill, could deny them?
- The special relationship is a “myth”? – Well, dur…
- “The poodle factor did not begin with Tony Blair, it began, yes, with Winston Churchill” – Obviously. He was desperate for military and economic aid and would suck up to whoever he could.
- “The British have a kind of tough-minded strategic sense of things politically in the Middle East and the world as a whole. We typically ignore them and take no notice. We say, â€˜There go the British telling us how to run the empire â€” letâ€™s park themâ€™.” – Yup. If they’d listened to us over Suez (and even more so after the First World War), we might have been able to avoid a lot of the current Middle Eastern mess.
- “the British are still where they have been all along, unable to answer the fundamental question of â€˜after Empire, what?â€™.â€ – Spot on. Blair acting like a world statesman when he represents a tiny wee country that manufactures precisely nothing of any worth to the rest of the world bar the Spice Girls?
- “Tony Blair could sound European on a good day, he could occasionally pronounce French well, and wear blue jeans with the best Americans. But the role of Britain acting as a bridge between Europe and America is disappearing before our eyes” – it’s the perennial post-war identity crisis.
- “what I think and fear is that Britain will draw back from the US without moving closer to Europe. In that sense, Londonâ€™s bridge is falling down.” – precisely my worries. I think me and old Kendal could get on. Although, of course, being British I’d have to dress up like a butler and call him “sir”…
Although it’s nice to finally have an acknowledgement from someone – albeit a relatively lowly someone – from within the American power structure of the truth of the Anglo-American relationship, none of this is anything new. Countless books have been written on the subject, and countless more will be.
Anyone who looks in to the details of the post-war transatlantic relationship and fails to see just what the situation has been for the last six decades is either blind or a fool.
Update 2: The Telegraph has a fair amount on the Blair government’s response.