A special place in hell
Why the “special relationship” needs to end
We’ve all seen it in somebody we know a friend, or an acquaintance. They’ve got this partner who doesn’t consider their feelings, bosses them around, tries to control their life, engages in bouts of irrational jealousy, won’t let them see friends and relatives. They’ll even complain about them, sometimes at length, sometimes sobbing down the phone line. But they won’t leave them, and if they do, they always go running back the next day. Why? Because the abusive partner makes them feel like they can’t live without them, employing charm and threats to undermine their capacity to be a fully independent person.
Such thoughts were on my mind when I witnessed comments made by Biden allies about the so-called “special relationship” last week. In reaction to leaked remarks allegedly made by cabinet members doubting President Joe Biden’s mental acuity in the wake of the Afghan debacle, allies of the President lashed out furiously warning that:
It’s always been his way that if somebody says something really bad to him, or about him, he doesn’t speak to them again. He does bear grudges. Boris Johnson should know that. Quite frankly, it bodes poorly for the relationship with the UK. The special relationship is very much in danger at this point. The president will say publicly that everything is fine, that our ties have never been stronger, but behind the scenes we are at a very dangerous moment. For him [Mr Biden] it’s my way or the highway.
In other words Britain has embarrassed America in public, and (so goes the furious whisper as the hand tightens on the arm) the ex-imperial power is going to catch hell when they get home.
A lot of people were shocked by the statement, which came almost certainly from somebody at least acting on behalf of the President himself. Britain has after all been America’s staunchest ally in the “War on Terror” and supported US foreign policy for decades. Was criticism of the Afghan withdrawal in the House and the Cabinet (criticism little different to what you can see by turning on CNN) really enough to merit the White House threatening to chuck Britain and the “special relationship” out of the window? Well if British policy-makers were surprised by America’s attitude, they shouldn’t have been. Because this is a recurring pattern of abuse.
America can afford to wage and then retreat from the “War on Terror” but Europe remains profoundly exposed to conflicts
On paper the special relationship makes sense. Britain and America are two English-speaking, sea-faring, liberal democracies, with advanced economies built on industrial innovation and extensive financial sectors, and committed to similar visions of the world order based on the rule of law, the free flow of commerce, and human rights. But these very similarities were the problem: where Britain saw a potential partner, America saw an imperial rival in the twilight of its power. Britain greatly overestimated the idealism of America’s overseas ambitions, and failed to foresee the ruthless realpolitik in the US foreign policy establishment.
In 1940, when France and Norway had fallen, and much of Europe was aligning behind Hitler, Britain and its Empire were desperate for US intervention in the war. American help was eventually forthcoming, with massive loans and the lendlease programme of military and industrial aid agreed. But whilst willing to give nearly limitless capital and industrial material to the Soviet Union for little in return, America extracted terms so harsh from Britain that they more closely resembled those of a defeated country. British war debts were only paid off in 2006, British gold reserves ended up shipped to the Federal Reserve, millions of US troops had flooded into Britain, and after the war thousands remained, and are still here to this day.
The dollar replaced the pound as the global reserve currency, sparking the 1947 Dollar Crisis as Britain scrambled to exchange pounds devalued by debt and lost gold reserves for the newly empowered US dollar. In the same year the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was signed, bringing an end to the system of “Imperial Preference” that had given a preferential access of members of the British Empire and Commonwealth to one another’s markets.
Having made Britain financially dependent, America isolated us from our global partners, ensuring that we could never again act independently of themselves. Even as British policy makers agreed to these humiliating terms, they remained convinced of their ally’s good will. Brits were enamoured with American wealth and popular culture, and the very poverty and weakness that US policy imposed acted to intensify awe and admiration for this younger, more vital English-speaking empire.
Disastrously Britain has for generations allowed itself to become diplomatically isolated
The illusion that, having taken its pound of flesh from Britain, America was done pushing us around, was shattered in the 1956 Suez crisis. When Britain acted with old allies to halt the ambitions of canny Egyptian dictator President Nasser, the mission was a success. But an independent British policy was something the US would not tolerate. Eisenhower threatened to devalue the pound and crash the British economy. Soon thereafter Britain and its allies withdrew and Prime Minister Anthony Eden resigned.
But why do US Presidents still react like this today? Because, improbable as it may seem, America still sees us as a threat. Not a threat like China of course, but the strategic logic that dictated Britain’s earlier castration remains the same. Britain, like America, is a global financial centre, serves as a finishing school to the world’s elites, has a blue water navy, a seat on the security council, nuclear weapons and strong relations with the rest of the Anglophone world.
Now and again, such as when Britain’s leaders condemned the Afghan withdrawal, America sees the uneasy doppelganger of another power patrolling the sea lanes, bearing the torch of parliamentary democracy, and English-speaking civilisation. America’s dominant position consists of two elements: — its preeminent wealth, military power and technology. But the other, more fragile aspect, is its monopoly in world finance, shipping and naval power, the old pillars of the British imperial project.
The very fact that we’re a considerably smaller and weaker country is an advantage for alliance building. Whilst any organisation or alliance (see here NATO or NAFTA) with American involvement inevitably renders other participants as at best junior partners and at worst supplicant and vassals, Britain is in the position to offer equal partnerships, coalitional arrangements in which both sides need each other, and interests are genuinely pooled.
Disastrously Britain has for generations allowed itself to become diplomatically isolated, relying on the dubious whims of America to set its strategic objectives. No ally is perfect, but consider the fulsome military and technical support of France during both the Suez and Falklands wars. Consider the generous loans provided by Canada throughout WW2 and the post-war period. Or the vast sacrifices made by the former Empire in the 20th century, the members of the British commonwealth to this day, who have moved far beyond looking to us as Imperial overlord, but still admire the values and constitutional order that we represent and so many still seek to uphold.
In Anglophone countries, in Europe, in Africa, in Asia, allies and partners exist who would welcome a country that could offer capacities currently monopolised by America — global trade, investment, technical assistance for armies and industries, sea and airpower to protect commerce and combat terrorism.
Old and dependable allies, centuries old economic, cultural and military relationships have been severed. Borders were thrown open to Europe, and apparently for cheap labour the world over, but Canadians, Australians, Jamaicans and New Zealanders despite sharing a head of state, language, culture and family ties with the country that founded them have no special rights of residence. Whilst France still maintains formidable influence in the Francophone world, there exist no tangible benefits, no prominent signs or symbols to tie us together with our historic allies and friends.
America may be powerful, but as our history together shows, it is not trustworthy. US foreign policy shifts with the wind of domestic opinion and State Department groupthink, and none of its allies and partners is strong enough to right the ship of US-led western foreign policy when it sails off course. Like with a domineering partner, there’s no arguing with America — the only move is to gain independence. What America lacks as a large, unaccountable global gorilla, Britain can slowly earn: trust. Having turned our back on so many friends, and been led into such incredible folly, it will take time. We have to build economic and military capacity not dependent on America, not to mention intelligence gathering and cyber security. Long neglected gaps in our fleet, army and air force will have to be filled, and British manufacturers should be preferred. Spasms of goodwill and “something must be done” speeches will no longer cut it: Britain must be pre-emptive, and act only in contexts where we have years of experience and established relationships and allies.
British power was born from the paradoxical sources of weakness and isolation
America can afford to wage and then haphazardly retreat from the “War on Terror” but Europe remains profoundly and directly exposed to any severe conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, as the civil wars in Libya and Syria revealed. America with its abundant resources and continent-sized country can also, perhaps, afford to drag its feet on climate change or fantasise about a “technical fix”. Britain is better placed to build coalitions to deal with these threats because unlike America it has no choice, as a European island global terror and rising sea levels alike cannot be evaded or ignored.
British leaders should remember the Britain that existed before it became a world power. British power was born from the paradoxical sources of weakness and isolation. Far smaller in population, wealth and military might than its neighbours, more not less exposed to invasion thanks to its vast coastline, and political and religious disunity. Who would have bet on 16th century England to become Great Britain? The Royal Navy, the instrument of our eventual empire, was built to stave off invasion. Our desperate need to break into the western hemisphere and the Indian Ocean was driven by diplomatic and economic isolation.
Our survival against Continental superpowers like France and Spain was ensured not just by our navy, but by our ability to build coalitions, often with smaller countries. British foreign policy has been historically marked by caution, conservatism and a tragic rather than optimistic sense of human nature. Collective progress can be achieved, but only in the context of a virtuous elite, a stable political order and vast patience in the face of setbacks and an inherently chaotic world. Like the Romans of old, only by seriously upholding your commitments and consistently observing the agreed laws and rules, can political order survive in contexts involving diverse and conflicting groups and worldviews. It is the antithesis of the views of totalitarian ideologies of left and right that believed by stripping away prior norms, traditions and laws one could bring about a perfected state and human subject.
If we ask ourselves the question, who needs Britain? Why not America? Why not anyone but us? This is the reason. Britain’s historic sympathy for small countries and a law-based international order derives not from sheer goodwill, but just as much from the grim lessons of self-interest. Britain has never been a continent-sized country with the ability to wish away the views of the rest of the world, and even at the height of its power relied on its vast overseas network of colonies, dominions and alliances to secure its domestic security.
America seems to espouse the same values, but is persistently tempted by its own power, either to the selfish slumber of glorious isolation, or to wage a glorious worldwide crusade on all who refuse American liberalism. As a strong and self-sufficient country America will never act with the caution or long-term planning of a medium sized country on the periphery of Europe. It will never fear that if it suspends international norms that one day it will itself fall victim. If its allies oppose a war, America nevertheless presses on alone. If terrorists dare to strike America directly, it will happily embrace torture, mass surveillance and extra-judicial assassination, confident that it can set aside the international laws that only America can enforce. And if after all the wars and the torture and the killings, if half the world is on fire, America can choose to go home to its city on the hill and wait till everything dies down.
People today say Britain is weak — but we’ve always been weak. They say that because we are weak we must stop trying to be a world power — but it is because we are weak that we must be a world power.
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