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The special relationship

Posted by Richard Sunday, September 26, 2004

In the Spectator this week, the lead article is given over to telly historian and fount of all wisdom on things historical, the one and only Niall Ferguson. He uses the space to discuss Britain’s "special relationship" with the United States, and concludes that the Anglo-American alliance is living on borrowed time. "Britain has much more in common with Europe" than the United States", he writes.

One hesitates to take on such an august and revered personality. From such a low position as occupied by this Blogger, it is almost like lèse majesté. But when you read the article, it turns out to be such utter tosh that the temptation to have a go at it is irresistible – so here goes. The subject is important, as it defines not only where we are with the US but where we are going with the European Union.

One has to start right at the beginning with this article though, as Ferguson starts his thesis with the rather pretentious statement: "Tony Blair and George W. Bush are perfect partners - Christian soldiers armed with Bibles and bazookas…". One is always so suspicious of trixy alliteration to make a point that one cannot let it pass.

Don’t know about the bible, but the US and British armies have long since stopped using "bazookas". Following the M-72 LAW – commonly known as the "66", after its calibre – the US moved on to equip with the AT-4, while the British selected the MBT LAW to replace the ageing LAW-80 system. None of these weapons is ever called a "bazooka".

I labour the point because it makes a point. People who do not know their terminology and use inappropriate terms are very often betraying an intellectual laziness. It is little clues like using an obsolete name for an obsolete weapon, long discarded, that reveals an awful lot about Ferguson.

Anyhow, Ferguson then has it that the Blair-Bush partnership - and the fact that, politically, both partners have survived the Iraq war - indicates that nothing can dent the special relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States". But this speculation is very much qualified by the word "seems".

Having raised the issue, however, Ferguson leaves it hanging and dives off at a tangent to address an equally fascinating question: "was and is Britain's support for American policy in our national interest?" He then elides that with an altogether different question, asking us to "consider the balance of advantage within the special relationship."

And arguing that these are different questions is not pedantic. With or without a special relationship, we could find ourselves supporting (or not) American policy. Furthermore, the "special relationship" is neither an alliance nor a commitment, and cannot so easily be weighed in the balance. In many ways, it just "is" – like seeking the end of a rainbow, as you get close to it, it disappears. It does not admit to close scrutiny.

But Ferguson does try to do just that, and fails. He cites Bush "almost prophetically" telling members of his National Security Council, "Two years from now only the Brits may be with us." According to Ferguson, Bush sensed that if the United States went to war against Iraq as well as Afghanistan, Britain alone could be relied upon for meaningful support. "And he was right," claims Ferguson.

The thing is, he wasn’t. Even over the past six months, the Canadians committed 11,000 troops to the campaign in Afghanistan and, as my colleague points out, even France and Germany are reluctantly contributing and the international security assistance force consists of 35 countries. The force in Iraq consists of troops from 29 countries.

But Ferguson focuses only on Britain, which delivers military support and "high class rhetoric". He then asks what does British get from the special relationship? To his own rhetorical question, he offers his own answer: the special relationship is, effectively, a linkage between the elites of two countries, military, commercial and political. That is all, and there is nothing of substance in it that guarantees the endurance of a strategic alliance between them.

Here, one can only comment that the man who writes about "bazookas" simply does not know what he is talking about. All you have to do is look at our military forces, and the US forces. For a start, the two share so much of the same tactical doctrines that they are virtually inseparable – the similarities being evident in the very equipment both armies use.

Does Ferguson think that the fact that our two different main battle tanks – the Challenger and the Abrams – are essentially the same in performance and capability is an accident? Is it a coincidence that the British FV432 APC is but a copy of the US M113, or that the Bradley and Warrior MICVs are virtually identical, and that FRES and FCS stem from the same strategic concept? The equipment belies the purpose, the purpose belies the thinking and the thinking is the same.

The Royal Marines train alongside the US Marines, the SBS train alongside the Seals, the SAS alongside the US Special Forces, RAF pilots alongside USAF pilots. Ditto Navy personnel, where cross-postings on nuclear submarines are an essential part of the manning rostas.

Both forces have an active programme of exchange postings, so that a US-badged aircraft could just as easily have a British as an American pilot. We share equipment, intelligence and, at a strategic level, work as one. The early warning system in Fylingdales is part of the US network of global early warning radars, the AWACs system is an integral part of the US system – and uses US equipment. US fighters based in Britain form an integral part of the British air defence system.

In fact, when the Tornado MRCA project was delayed – the fruits of another European co-operative venture – and the RAF ended up flying combat aircraft with concrete ballast in their noses instead of working radar sets, apart from a few squadrons of Vietnam era F-4 Phantoms, the only effective air defence in the UK was the USAF F-15 fighter wing flying out of Lakenheath.

But ignorance is a wonderful thing when you want to make a point, and Ferguson relies on it heavily. "The interests of the United States and the United Kingdom have in fact been divergent for many decades," he writes. Really? Marshall Plan? Cold War? Post-Communist reconstruction of Europe? Yugoslavia? War against Terror? These are divergent interests?

Different interests indeed we have had, and do have, not least the understandable preoccupation of the US with China and the Pacific, and the difference in stance between the US and the UK over our possession of colonies. But there have always been enough common interests to keep us together.

Nevertheless, even our "togetherness" Ferguson distorts. "The British for their part were almost equally slow to grasp that reliance on the Americans for military technology would swiftly lead to dependence," he writes. "The cancellation of the Skybolt missile system in 1962 was just one milestone on the road to a military subordination the French were able to avoid".

Where do you start with this? When Skybolt went down, we got Polaris missiles and, to make them operational, we built our own nuclear submarines, thereby acquiring a credible independent nuclear deterrent. The French built Mirage IVs as their delivery system, an aircraft with a range that could just get it to Berlin. To reach Moscow, it needed air-refuelling, for which the Force de Frappe was totally dependent on US-built KC135 tankers.

This is the trouble with these pieces. Error heaps upon error, and deconstructing them takes much longer than the original text. But, even if the point is now made, we must cement Ferguson into his (literary) grave for his comments on the British entry to the EEC. He writes:

It was precisely the unreliability of the United States — not only as an ally but also as an export market — that gradually convinced Britain’s political elite that they must abandon the Churchillian dream of a bilateral Atlantic partnership in favour of a new special relationship (in the first instance economic) with the signatories of the Treaty of Rome. Thus Britain’s entry into the EEC rang, or should have rung, the death knell for the special relationship. From 1973, Britain ceased to have an independent trade policy, removing the entire field of commerce from the realm of bilateral Anglo-American relations.
This is standing history on its head. As Christopher Booker and I show in our book The Great Deception, Harold Macmillan's greatest concern in 1961 was that, if Britain applied to join the EEC, this might imperil the special relationship with America. What swung it was Kennedy’s assurance to Macmillan in April 1961 that British membership of the EEC could only strengthen the Anglo-US relationship.

There is no evidence whatever In the documents of the time that fear of US "unreliability" was a factor in the decision. Ironically, Britain’s largest export market at the time was not the USA but the Commonwealth (43 percent), much of which she would be forced to lose as a condition of joining the EEC.

As for our close military alliance with the USA, this is only now, 40 years later, being seriously threatened by our growing identification with the EU's common defence policy. The real reason why "Britain's political elite" chose ‘Europe’ in the 1960s was their belief, when the UK economy was faltering, that they were joining the world’s most dynamic economic bloc. The irony of that is now self-evident.

Perhaps Ferguson should stick to hosting lightweight television history documentaries, and leave the real history to people who know what they are talking about.

But, before we leave him, perversely, one can agree with his conclusion, that the Anglo-American alliance "is surely living on borrowed time". However, this is not for the reasons Ferguson offers. Simply, as we get ourselves embedded more and more in the EU's common defence and security policy, we are distancing ourselves more and more from the US, and putting the special relationship at risk. In prime minister Blair, therefore, we have a man who appears to have taken the special relationship forward. The reality is, though, that he has done more to damage it than any other post-war leader.

With that, all we need to do is give our own answer to the question of whether the special relationship is in the British interest. The answer can be best provided by asking another question: who would you prefer to fight alongside you: the French army, or the American?

In this, we are reminded by one of our readers that in April last, MORI (in a poll for The Economist) asked: "In a crisis which would be Britain's most reliable ally?" The answer was America 59 percent, "Europe" 16 percent, the Commonwealth 15 percent. There is your special relationship.