Whither the special relationship? Bush, Blair and Britain’s future


by Ian Williams

The recent spectacle of President George W. Bush being paraded through the streets of London by Tony Blair to celebrate the "Special Relationship," provokes the question of what is so special about it. For example, during Bush's visit, the British prime minister did not secure from his friend American adherence to international law for British internees in Guantanamo. Blair does not get listened to over expanding the UN role in Iraq, nor even over the importance of getting the Middle East peace process seriously on track.

Yet there is indeed a special relationship. While there were massive demonstrations against Bush, polls showed that many British did feel remarkably friendly to the U.S., even if they had reservations about this particular president and his actions. Perhaps a measure is the lack of controversy about British involvement in Afghanistan following the attacks of September 11th. One does not have to be too cynical to wonder whether a similar attack on Britain would have resulted in as much automatic domestic support in the United States for what looked like a long and hard war.

But that highlights what is really special about the relationship-its unrequited asymmetry. The U.K. has surrendered a surprising amount of sovereignty to the U.S. In 1948, the Labour government invited American bombers, nuclear armed, to bases in Britain, and they have been there since, making Britain an automatic participant in World War III. Britain provides bases around the world for the U.S., and the joint arrangements on intelligence means the US government can spy on its own citizens' phone calls from the shared facilities in Britain.

While Britain developed its own nuclear weapons, (with, incidentally no help from the U.S. States, despite sending all its own research to its ally during WW II) in the 1960s, the then conservative government in effect gave up development of any means of delivery. Britain secured the technology first for Polaris, then for Trident nuclear submarine systems.

There have been hiccoughs. Dwight Eisenhower, quite correctly, forced the U.K. and France to get out of Egypt when they invaded Sinai in 1956, and on the other side, Britain's Harold Wilson fought off Lyndon Johnson's attempts to embroil Britain in Vietnam. In both cases, Washington's leverage was the shakiness of sterling as a declining reserve currency.

Until recently, the two sides also agreed to differ on the Middle East. Britain, even under Margaret Thatcher, regularly voted for resolutions at the UN that the United States vetoed. However, under Blair's second term, even that difference has been half-resolved. More out of loyalty to the United States than to Israel, Britain now regularly abstains rather than defy Washington on such issues. Apart from any ethical dimensions such as Palestinian rights, this recent course of action is likely to erode Britain's close commercial relations in the Arab world that were so assiduously cultivated by Thatcher.

If you want to see a real special relationship, look at Ariel Sharon, who runs rings round Bush administration officials if ever they hint that he should keep his word about the Road Map.

It is surely time for a reassessment. If Ireland, or Jamaica, or Chile, or New Zealand, can pursue an independent foreign policy, and bargain with Washington, then why should the United Kingdom be the old mistress, always waiting and available, but with no claim on American generosity? It is time for Britain either to play hard-to-get or to work seriously on an amicable separation.

Blair's claimed hand on the steering wheel over Iraq proved ineffectual. What he needed was a brake on the locomotive, of the kind that only a publicly-stated difference can get. Whispering respectful disagreements to the White House does not do the job with this administration. In the longer term, Britain's unremitting servility to American policies has disrupted the attempts of Europe to build, not necessarily an opposition, but an alternative centre of power in the world.

Last month's British agreement to begin EU joint military planning, despite American displeasure, shows that there is still some hope. Although the chances of the once Euro-phile Blair returning to his old affections seem slim, perhaps an alternative Labour leadership will see the world unblinkered by the unseemly admiration for the absentee war-hero of the Texas Air National Guard.

Ian Williams contributes frequently to Foreign Policy in Focus (online at www.fpif.org) on UN and international affairs. This article, on which readers are particularly invited to comment, is excerpted from a new global affairs commentary available in full at http://www.fpif.org/commentary/2003/0312bushblair.html