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December 09, 2008

Some Heavy Musings on the Special Relationship
Posted by Adam Blickstein

Pat's post is an excellent light examination of the current state of the special relationship between the U.S. and Britain. When Winston Churchill first uttered the phrase in 1945, it signaled a cementing of military cooperation between the two powers in the post-war world, predicated on the looming strategic threat from the Soviet Union. The traditional military underpinnings of the special relationship, though, arguably saw its bookend in terms of what we commonly viewed it as meaning during the Balkan crisis and NATO's Kosovo intervention in 1999. It was a coalescing of common strategic interest and internal domestic support, as well as the binding interventionist views of both Clinton and Blair. But post-Kosovo, there was a strategic breakdown between the two countries vis-à-vis Blair's support for the Iraq war as a deviation from the special relationship, not an indicator of its strength (though Bush used lofty rhetoric to suggest otherwise).

British historian Ian Kershaw examined this angle in an LA Times piece last year. It suggests that while the nature of the special relationship has retained common strategic aims, divergent strategies on how to achieve these common goals and differing degrees of domestic opinion have transformed it. Also, the financial crisis could move Britain closer to Europe in order to bolster its economic security, which might be another indicator that the traditional view of the special relationship is more specious than before.

The key to the special relationship has been that it was never based on a myopic partnership solely between the America and Britain, but that the U.K and U.S traditionally lead broad coalitions of nations with common strategic goals and common internal domestic views. Domestic political uncertainty and dissatisfaction amongst traditional allies, not to mention the effects of the economic crisis, may hinder our ability to return to the traditional notion of a special relationship. Indeed Blair's support for the Iraq war may have inextricably scarred it. Perhaps Barack Obama and Gordon Brown can reinvigorate it, especially in terms of Afghanistan, by reengaging our allies, especially those who are still reluctant to participate in necessary military operations there (Britain has already intimated it is indeed up to other allies to act first on increasing their commitment in Afghanistan).

But Obama's first step in attempting to resuscitate the special relationship wouldn't be to necessarily court Britain specifically and then branch out from there, but to implement a broader strategic framework which would reengage all our traditional allies. By doing so, Britain and America could once again be the leaders of many instead of trying to go it alone as a tandem, something which has sabotaged the special relationship for 8 years now


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It is worth recalling that the special relationship in its modern form originated as a relationship between elites of a declining but still powerful empire under mortal threat, on the one hand, and the rising superpower on the other.

Though this relationship was buttressed by shared language and religious tradition as well as by the many personal contacts made during two world wars, its core was a small number of men on each side of the Atlantic who saw on the other side things they thought valuable for their own country. For Britain, America meant survival to begin with, and later a means by which to sustain a larger world role than its own resources would have permitted it to play. For the United States, Britain was the essential ally in the defeat of Nazi Germany, later a source of information and counsel concerning areas of the world America had all but ignored during its long isolationist period, and still later an ally whose identification with American values and (mostly) interests could be assumed.

The orientation of each country's elites has changed by this time. America's has turned inward; Britain's has turned toward Europe. In the United States, the end of the Cold War ended the insulation from domestic politics -- and its crudest form, campaign politics -- that had enabled foreign policy specialists to pursue relations with Britain and many other countries without undue regard to whether it did them much good politically. In recent administrations, government actions without obvious political benefit have been seen as less valuable. Great Britain had reached out in its hour of peril to the United States to defend against a mortal threat from Europe; once Europe ceased to be a potential source of such threat, ties to Britain's near neighbors were bound to assume greater importance relative to relations with the giant superpower across the ocean.

So the relationship is attenuated compared to what it was, as it was bound to be -- but the basic alignment of American and British values was not fundamentally deranged until the Bush administration mortgaged it to the adventure in Iraq. To some extent, British leaders and Tony Blair especially had themselves to blame for the sequence of events that led thousands of British troops to be stuck for years performing a mission not obviously helpful to British national interests. Blair never told President Bush "no" -- a step that would have been as bitterly resented in Washington at the time as Eisenhower's refusal to support the Anglo-French Suez operation had been in London almost a half-century earlier, but which could have been repaired as the earlier one was without leaving a residue of deep popular resentment.

Bush's administration allowed the value of the special relationship to come into question in Britain by miring British forces in a prolonged Iraqi civil war. It also allowed the alignment of British and American values to be thrown further in doubt by the way it chose to proceed against people detained on suspicion of terrorism in Afghanistan and elsewhere or for various reasons within Iraq. Bush allowed the growth of a conviction in Britain that he and his administration were not really interested in British views, a conviction not notably at variance with the Bush's actual attitude or that of his Vice President. The final bit of damage was done in the last year, when Bush stood mute while the financial markets spun through one crisis after another toward collapse, undermining any sense that the American government, though presiding over the world's largest economy, really knew what it was doing.

This is the catalog of damage done by the current administration, which must be repaired by the next one. It should be possible; some parts of it may even be easy, as the personally boorish Bush gives way to the more naturally gracious Obama. But we should not think "resuscitating the special relationship" can mean bringing it back to what it was 20 or even 10 years ago. Both the degree to which America has come to be identified in Britain with the person of the incumbent President and the political and economic currents pulling the two countries apart for decades will make rebuilding ties of trust, confidence and a sense of shared purpose the work of many years and of more than one administration. Most of all it will require, in the United States, some rebuilding of the insulation from domestic politics that sustained this relationship as well as many others for so many years.

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