Globalist Analysis

A Special Relationship No More?

Will the May 6 British elections lead to fissures in the U.S.-Britain relationship?

Takeaways


  • Britain has for 70 years been the closest and most reliable and also most powerful ally of the United States.
  • This is not only dramatic for the future of British politics, but it could also have a profound impact on international relations and U.S. foreign policy, and U.S. relations with Europe as a whole.
  • Batman is losing Robin. Don Quixote may look in vain for his trusty Sancho Panza. The Lone Ranger can no longer count on Tonto.
  • "I think it's sometimes rather embarrassing the way Conservative and Labour politicians talk in this kind of slavish way about the special relationship," Clegg said.
  • "Our strategic interests will not be served unless we release ourselves from that spell of default Atlanticism which has prevailed so strongly since Suez."

Britain’s general election has become one of those moments when life imitates art, or at least, when international politics follows a script from the movies. Nick Clegg is the leader of Britain’s third party, the long-derided Liberal Democrats. He has electrified the election by leaping forward in the TV debates and pulling even in opinion polls with the Conservatives and pushing Labour into third place.

This is not only dramatic for the future of British politics, but it could also have a profound impact on international relations and U.S. foreign policy, and U.S. relations with Europe as a whole.

Cut to the movie “Love, Actually.” It was released on Thanksgiving weekend in 2003 and took in $80 million at the U.S. box office, double its production costs. It went on to make another $190 million worldwide, which means it was a considerable success.

It starred Hugh Grant in the role of a British Prime Minister, young and engaging and very much like Tony Blair, except that he did not go along with the “special relationship” with the United States that had been the bedrock of British foreign policy since World War II.

And Nick Clegg, then an ambitious young Member of Parliament, took thoughtful note of the way British cinema audiences, deeply restive at Britain’s role in President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, cheered at one Prime Ministerial speech directed at the U.S. president:

“I love that word, ‘relationship.’ Covers all manner of sins, doesn’t it?” the speech begins. “I fear that this has become a bad relationship, a relationship based on the president taking exactly what he wants and casually ignoring all those things that really matter to Britain. We may be a small country, but we’re a great one too.

“The country of Shakespeare, Churchill, The Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter, David Beckham’s right foot. David Beckham’s left foot, come to that. And a friend who bullies us is no longer a friend. And since bullies only respond to strength, from now onward I will be prepared to be much stronger. And the president should be prepared for that.”

And now cut back to reality, to a speech that Clegg gave this month to the Foreign Correspondents’ association in London:

“I think it’s sometimes rather embarrassing the way Conservative and Labour politicians talk in this kind of slavish way about the special relationship,” Clegg said. “If you speak to hard-nosed folk in Washington, they think it’s a good relationship, but it’s not the special relationship.”

Cut to reality again, this time to a Clegg speech in March to Chatham House, the prestigious British foreign policy think-tank (disclosure: this columnist is on the review board of its quarterly journal):

“Let me be clear,” Clegg began. “I’m an Atlanticist much like everyone else. I spent a happy time working in the United States. I think it is vital to our interests that we maintain a positive, strong and even uniquely warm relationship with the United States.

“But it is not our only relationship, and it mustn’t become a relationship that at every junction, every time a decision is made, we have no choice but to follow the decisions made in the White House. And yet that seems to have been happening with greater velocity and frequency in recent years rather than less.”

Britain has for 70 years been the closest and most reliable and also most powerful ally of the United States. It had the largest contingents of non-U.S. troops in both Iraq wars and in Afghanistan.

It hosts U.S. military bases and is by far the largest foreign investor in the United States. In fact, there is more British investment in Texas alone than all Asian investment in the United States combined. The two countries cooperate closely on almost all international and most financial issues.

The cooperation is uniquely strong between the intelligence services of the two countries and at the level of nuclear weapons, where the United States has provided the hardware of the Polaris and Trident submarine missile systems that have embodied Britain’s nuclear deterrent forces for nearly 50 years.

And now a leading theme of Clegg’s policy is not to renew the Trident missile system, and to replace it with some variant such as British-built cruise missiles launched from British submarines.

“I believe there is no case for the like-for-like replacement for that [Cold War Trident Missile] system. And I believe one of the reasons there is a deafening silence on that issue is because that missile system is cemented by a sense of indebtedness to our American friends,” Clegg said in that Chatham House speech.

“Our strategic interests will not be served unless we release ourselves from that spell of default Atlanticism which has prevailed so strongly since Suez.”

Scan his party’s election manifesto in vain for any mention of NATO. Instead, he is a passionate pro-European who wants Britain to join the euro currency. He is an equally passionate internationalist who believes in global government. Again from his Chatham House speech: “Globalization requires us to formulate a system of supranational governance capable of controlling forces which escape the limitations of the nation state.”

Clegg is most unlikely to become prime minister. But he is almost certain to become the kingmaker of the next British government, with very great influence on its policy. The long-standing U.S. assumption of automatic British support for its policies is now in question.

Batman is losing Robin. Don Quixote may look in vain for his trusty Sancho Panza. The Lone Ranger can no longer count on Tonto.

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