President Obama has certainly caused an affront in certain British diplomatic and public quarters with his recent remark, made during a televised meeting with President Sarkozy, that the United States ‘doesn’t have a stronger friend and stronger ally than Nicolas Sarkozy and the French people’.
Well that puts Britain in its place, has been the general reaction; downgraded to third position at best, after Germany.
But shouldn’t we be offering Obama a vote of thanks for introducing a dose of realism into what has become, and perhaps always was, a mythical concept, turned to or ignored according to the expediency of a moment in history? The thought raises some hard questions.
The common cultural roots on which the Special Relationship was presumably based are now more at variance than ever before. Apart from anything else, the citizens of each country have a hard job trying to understand the politics of the other.
Ultimately sentiment has never provided a strong enough binding force to hold things together in the spheres of politics or finance. Has the Special Relationship in fact ever been anything more than some sort of consolation prize to Britain for the decline and loss of its empire?
Its origins go back earlier than the twentieth century, but it took on a particular resonance at the end of the Second World War, after the unprecedented collaboration between America and Britain to defeat the Axis powers in Western Europe as the Soviet Union rolled in from the East.
Winston Churchill understood America, having had an American mother, and he and President Roosevelt cut flamboyant figures along with Marshal Stalin at the Treaty of Yalta.
Earlier in the war, however, during the darkest hours of Dunkirk and the blitz, Britain and America had hardly been standing shoulder to shoulder. The isolationist and temporarily powerful America First Committee worked hard to convince public opinion that the United States should stay out of hostilities in Europe at all costs.
Only after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 did the isolationists lose all credibility. Pearl Harbor was, in effect, the catalyst that rallied Britain and America in a common cause.
With the strengthened voices of the interventionists behind him, Roosevelt was then able to offer Britain aid in ways he could not have done earlier, but he died in 1945, to be succeeded by Harry S Truman, who ended the war with Japan by using atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Britain had made its contribution to the atomic programme, though the Soviet Union also became a beneficiary through its spy networks in the West, and set the scene for the nuclear arms race of the Cold War, with both sides rivalling each other in developing technology and stockpiling missiles. America’s front line of surveillance inevitably went all the way to the new Soviet bloc and Britain became just part of the larger picture.
In the first election in Britain after the Second World War, Churchill had been rejected by an electorate that did not trust him to deliver the Welfare State it felt was its due after the years of suffering and privation, and Clement Attlee’s Labour administration came to power with a mandate for social change.
Britain and America fought side by side again in the Korean War in the early 1950s, though this was under the auspices of the United Nations, which in those days was receiving the full backing of the United States as a forum for the new pattern of world powers. The unique relationship between Britain and America was probably best summed up by Truman’s secretary of state Dean Rusk when he famously said that of course it existed, but ‘unique did not mean affectionate. We had fought England as an enemy as often as we had fought by her side as an ally’.
By the Suez crisis of 1956, Eisenhower was US President and Anthony Eden Prime Minister in London, but Eden’s health was already faltering and there was a general condemnation of the ‘Suez adventure’, with John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s secretary of state, speaking in especially harsh terms. In 1957 Eden resigned and Macmillan succeeded him as Prime Minister.
When Macmillan tried to develop a détente with the Soviet Union in 1960, Eisenhower thwarted it ruthlessly, creating in Macmillan a disenchantment with America, though the ‘special’ feelings revived for him after John F. Kennedy arrived in the White House and he found he had a basis of trust with the younger man, whom he admired.
Even so there was a potential moment of profound rift in 1962 when Kennedy and his secretary of defense Robert McNamara made a unilateral attempt to cut Britain out of any role in the nuclear deterrent strategy. To Macmillan’s fury, the veteran US statesman Dean Acheson used this juncture to make the speech in which he declared that Great Britain had ‘lost an empire and not yet found a role’, the role on which it was depending, including the Special Relationship, being ‘about played out’.
The next pairing of leaders in the 1960s, between Lyndon B. Johnson and Harold Wilson, was mostly marked by differences and distancing. If Britain really wanted the Special Relationship, hectored Robert McNamara, then it must ‘pay the blood price’ and send troops to Vietnam. Wilson resolutely refused and only sent military advisers, pursuing a policy of scaling back on Britain’s world role.
When it came to Nixon and Heath in the 1970s, Heath had his focus far more on the EEC and the importance of Britain’s entry into the community, which Nixon was only interested in if it opened up the European market to American exports. A further low ebb in the relationship came during the Arab-Israeli War of 1973 when Nixon put US forces on nuclear alert without informing Heath and Nixon’s secretary of state Henry Kissinger misled the British ambassador. Heath only learned about the alert when he read it in the press.
Much was made of the Special Relationship in 1976, however, with Britain seeing the American bicentennial as a golden opportunity for its promotion. There was a year of cultural exchanges and exhibitions, Prime Minister Jim Callaghan presenting a US delegation with a gold-embossed reproduction of Magna Carta, and the Queen making a state visit to the States, though the then President, Gerald Ford, never visited the UK .
The outcome in the aftermath was little more than lip service being paid to the Special Relationship under the succeeding presidency of Jimmy Carter. The next upsurge of enthusiasm came in the 1980s with the meeting of President Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and their discovering they were ‘soul mates’.
Margaret Thatcher had a definite input into American thinking in those years, and her opinions on Gorbachev in Russia and his sincerity in seeking the end of the Cold War were listened to. The Special Relationship had never been seen to be on such good form since the days of Churchill and Roosevelt, but it was a matter of an extraordinary chemistry between two individuals in positions of power.
Once Bill Clinton was in the White House and John Major at 10 Downing Street there was no such meeting of minds. Indeed there were reports of them not being on speaking terms even at the dinner table. Matters eased over the approach to the war in Bosnia, but were thrown into disarray again when Clinton refused to block a visit by Gerry Adams to the US, the American Irish population being one of the main sources of funds for the IRA (another romantic dream in reverse).
The next sea change came with the election of Tony Blair at the head of his New Labour administration, which Clinton welcomed. When George W. Bush then succeeded to the White House, Bush and Blair became a team, especially in the wake of the 9/11 outrage.
A dangerous trait the two men had in common was the certainty of having the wind of destiny in their sails, with God behind it.
They were united in their conviction that the new forces of global aggression, which seemed to be arising out of an extreme branch of fundamentalist Islam, must be taken on by preemptive military action. Their target contradictorily became Saddam Hussein, who, for all his faults of tyranny and brutality, was no friend of Islamic radicals. Indeed, in establishing his power base through his Ba’ath party, he was keenly encouraged by the West, which saw in him the possibility of a strong leader with a stabilising influence.
The next consequence, as we all know, was the invasion of Iraq on a dubious legal basis, the sidelining of the United Nations and disastrous consequences in the indiscriminate costs of human life. Ironically the voice of the French President of the time, Jacques Chirac, seemed to be the only one speaking sense in questioning this adventure.
The costs to Blair’s reputation have certainly been severe. It seemed he was dancing indiscriminately to Bush’s tune, justifying himself with glib and superficial thinking and statements to match. In reality, and without putting a gloss on it, his relationship with Bush had all the appearance of that of a master and slave and was demeaning to observe.
If the Iraq War is the latest major achievement to come out of the Special Relationship, then that is surely enough to make us question its validity. The ongoing Chilcot inquiry may have no mandate to hold anyone to account, and have its access to essential documents hindered, but the inferences emerging can do Blair’s credibility no favours in posterity. In particular, the assertion by the former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith that, in the run-up to the war, Blair misled parliament over the legality of invading Iraq without a UN resolution, is highly explosive.
As we move into the present situation with the Special Relationship, Gordon Brown and Barack Obama did not seem to hit it off during their brief acquaintance, and David Cameron hardly got off on the right foot (or showed he had absorbed any history lessons) with his reference to how America had stood by Britain in its darkest hour during the Blitz. This was not exactly true. It is yet another romantic fantasy designed to bolster our relationship with the United States.
There were plenty in America who were prepared to write off Britain then, and plenty who would do so today in a globalised economy. Surely the healthiest thing for Britain would be to forget the chimera of a Special Relationship and follow its own path.
Britain’s influence should aim to be more global, with a greater emphasis on Europe and the Far East, where its knowledge is far superior to that of the Americans.
The so-called Special Relationship has been nothing more than a matter of expediency according to the mood of the day. Let’s be real and reject the notion that, because of a common language, a close relationship inevitably follows. In today’s world, where self-interest and greed are the defining factors, we need something more substantial to link us together than mere superfluous rhetoric.