Sunday, November 14, 2004

The continuing saga of the special relationship

An odd aspects of the special relationship between Britain and the United States is that it is the weaker partner that is more likely to be negative about it and the stronger one positive. One is much more likely to hear British politicians, journalists, commentators, old uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all pronounce that there is no special relationship or that it is all one way from us to them or that Mr Blair is little more than Mr Bush’s poodle. American politicians, journalists, commentators and so on, fall over themselves in trying to explain that the special relationship is alive and well, that Mr Blair has a huge influence in Washington and ought to have more, that the relationship is both ways with each needing the other.

What is one to make of it all? Some of this is psychological mirror imaging. If I may make what is a difficult generalization, the United States, though undoubtedly the strongest and most powerful country at the moment, does not like the situation very much. It likes having allies and likes showing off about having allies, particularly if one of them is Britain, a country much admired though not much known in America.

British attitude to America and Americans is somewhat more complicated. Yes, there is a special link there, which is historic and unbreakable. But there is also an astonishing and incomprehensible amount of resentment. It is as if there was a feeling across the country, especially among the great and the good, that it is all wrong that America is where it is – at the top of the world’s power structure; it ought to be Britain. Why is it not Britain? Must be a mistake. Perhaps, if we go on behaving as if we were the most powerful country in the world still, everybody will believe us.

As we have written before, Mr Blair’s visit to the United States produced a great deal of advice on both sides of the Atlantic. All tended along the lines that President Bush owes Prime Minister Blair a great deal and should pay his debt; the two have a lot in common and certainly many interests in common; they should support various initiatives together; above all, President Bush should support various rather nebulous ideas that Prime Minister Blair might bring with him especially about the Middle East and Europe.

Very muddled, all of it. In the first place, it is hard to see what Mr Bush owes Mr Blair that he does not owe other supporters of the coalition of the willing, such as John Howard of Australia or President Kwasniewski of Poland. Mr Blair is, indeed, popular in many parts of the United States (particularly Washington DC) but it is hard to believe that all those millions of Americans voted for Bush because Our Tone is his friend.

On the other hand, it is true to say that Britain and America do or, at least, should have many interests in common. Both countries have fought against enemies of the liberal west before and are fighting the same fight again. Both have an interest in extending the liberal western ideas as far as possible in the world, partly for moral and partly for political reasons. (It is interesting that many of the opponents of military action against terrorists and states that harbour terrorists exclaimed in horror at the crudity of it all, babbling on about the need to deal with the roots of terrorism. But what was horrifying them was precisely the firmly expressed American intention to do just that – by trying to scotch terrorist regimes and aiding and abetting the growth of democracy.)

So what has actually come out of Prime Minister Blair’s visit? Very little and this, alas, will confirm some people’s view that Blair is no more than Bush’s poodle. As a matter of fact, poodles are useful hunting dogs, so calling someone a poodle is hardly an insult. Would that politicians were that useful.

There is another mystery here. When the British Prime Minister or the government or, indeed, the country shows friendship and loyalty to our greatest friend and ally (however exasperating it might be occasionally), there are sneers and jeers and accusations of poodledom. But let anyone even suggest that we ought to renegotiate seriously our relationship with other European states and the same people throw their hands up in horror, gasping out the words: treaty and breaking.

The odd thing is that Blair could have got various things out of the visit, over and above the fulsome praise bestowed upon him by Bush. It’s just that he seems to be unable to think of what it is he really wants.

Take the Middle East, for instance. There is no point in asking Bush to try to further the peace process as he has already proclaimed himself ready to do so if the various Palestinian organizations will show themselves willing to engage in real negotiations. The only thing Blair could add was a rather typical suggestion of a conference in London in January. Well, of course, such a conference would be a feather in Mr Blair’s cap (and make life absolutely hellish for anyone who lives and works in London, what with all the security and other problems) but what would it achieve?

One cannot help agreeing with the long editorial piece in today’s Sunday Telegraph. Mr Bush will, quite rightly, agree to a conference that may bring about some development. But if it is only an excuse for yet more hot air (what of global warming, one asks oneself) then let’s forget it. The people of London can relax.

Then there is Europe or, to be quite precise, the European Union, since Europe as such is hardly a problem. It cannot possibly have escaped American attention that it is not only in Iraq that the “official” EU line is: find out what the Americans want to do and oppose it. In the Palestine there was the unthinking and undiscussed support for Arafat and his hoodlums, however harmful that may have been to the cause of peace and the Palestinian people.

In other parts of the world it is the equally unthinking and undiscussed support for any tyranny, as long as it is anti-American and a great flaunting of “dialogue” with anyone, but anyone, the United States considers to be an enemy. There has to be another alternative to either slavishly falling in behind the Americans all the time or equally slavishly opposing them all the time. As between the two, given the sort of allies we acquire by the second alternative, perhaps we should think a little more carefully about the first one. Or just start thinking rather than reacting.

Still, Mr Bush is planning to take a European trip on which he will, no doubt, be greeted by the same hysterical screaming crowds he was greeted by last time, made up of people who seem to believe that there is no power in the world worse than American. He will almost certainly be snubbed by President Chirac and criticized by assorted other European leaders. And that will probably be that. Mr Blair will be left to pick up the pieces and face his own backbenchers yet again.

And that seems to be the extent of that famous shopping list that Mr Blair took with him to Washington. He seems to have had no ideas about Russia, China, Africa, the role of international organizations or anything else (unless there were secret talks we know nothing about). Above all, he took nothing to offer – no glass beads or, even, bales of silk.

As my colleague has written on occasions too numerous to refer to (but here is one, anyway), British defence policy (if there is such a thing) has gradually deprived the British forces of their ability to stand anywhere near the American ones, all in the name of further integration into the projected European Security and Defence Identity. Mr Blair’s insistence on the need for a European army and a European foreign policy has made him a less than important ally. From what one can gather there is a growing understanding in Washington of the danger the European Union is or will be to the western alliance. Mr Blair, if he had any imaginative ideas about the future of Europe away from the European Union, would probably have been listened to with interest. But he does not. He remains a European integrationist who, somehow, cannot see that he cannot combine that with the continuing special relationship. And so, he, his government and its policies drift on, as does the country.

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