End of the affair

War in Iraq has exposed the"special relationship" as a liability that has damaged British interests in Europe and the Muslim world. Inside the British establishment the special relationship is now supported only by prime ministers, submariners and code breakers. We must become just good friends
May 19, 2003

Whatever other casualties the Iraq war produces, whatever difficulties and opportunities appear in the aftermath, one thing is clear. Even in victory the principles on which British foreign policy have been based since Suez are now amongst the walking wounded.

Tony Blair and his predecessors—with the exception of Edward Heath—have often told us that the most important of these principles is to preserve Britain's unique "special relationship" with America. American technical and logistic support for our highly competent military and intelligence agencies gives us a special weight in Nato. Our influence in Washington enables us to bridge the gap between Europe and America. It underpins our privileged but precarious position as one of only five powers that can exercise a veto in the UN Security Council. It is thanks to the American link—and, of course, to our own unrivalled historical experience—that we still punch above our weight in the affairs of the world.

That is the story. But foreign policy is more complicated than that. It involves balancing objectives, rather than subordinating all to a single aim. In the field of trade and commerce we have no inhibitions about using all the weapons at our disposal—including our membership of the EU—to defend our interests in negotiation with America. But the concentration on the special relationship in matters of foreign affairs and defence has distorted British policy for many years. And in the run-up to the Iraq war, our determined and blind adherence to the US line has undermined our other interests—in the proper functioning of the UN, in the Nato alliance, and in our relationships with our partners in Europe. It also damages our standing in the Muslim world, and makes us more, not less, vulnerable to terrorism. Most galling of all, it has reduced our freedom of manoeuvre to the point that we are now widely seen as incapable of having a mind of our own.

There is, in any case, a good deal less to the special relationship between Britain and the US than meets the eye. For the British, it is an emotional comfort blanket for a declining power. The British feel at home with Americans, with whom—so they believe—they share a common history, political system, culture and values. They assume that Americans think the same way about them. They are wrong. Ordinary Americans barely think of Britain from one year to another. The British are actively disliked by many of the millions of Irish Americans. American policymakers find them useful as spear carriers in the UN and Nato, and as reasonably competent military allies when it comes to a shooting war. From time to time they try to use the British as a potential Trojan horse, if European integration looks like being too successful.

But the traffic is one-way. The Americans have very rarely adapted in order to accommodate the British. After the second world war, they cut off Lend-Lease without warning. They broke off the wartime co-operation on nuclear affairs. They actively promoted the dissolution of the British empire. They pulled the rug from under their British and French allies at the time of Suez, and they were quite right to do so. Allies have a duty to come to the aid of a partner who is attacked, but neither the Americans—nor, for that matter, the French—have a duty to support a partner they believe is engaged in a foolish adventure. The State department recommended against supporting their British ally after the Falklands were invaded. If that recommendation had carried the day, there would have been a firestorm of anger in Britain and the relationship might never have recovered. Reagan had more sense. On Northern Ireland, US policy was distinctly equivocal. Successive administrations allowed money to be raised to finance Irish terrorism, and were lukewarm about pressing for the extradition of Irish fugitives who had been convicted of serious crimes in British courts. Clinton gave a visa to Gerry Adams and received him in the White House. His action was motivated by domestic political considerations, although it may have aided the peace process. It was not seen to do so in Britain, where it caused much irritation. The Americans do not budge when important domestic or international interests are involved. There is no reason why they should.

The price of the special relationship has been heavy, even in the field of security and defence, where US co-operation with the British has been closer and more intimate than with any of their other allies. In contrast to the French, who preferred to plough a more lonely but independent furrow, co-operation with the Americans has robbed the British of much of their independence. We have highly professional sailors, powerful ballistic missile submarines, and a fleet of nuclear attack submarines. We designed and built the hulls, the propulsion systems and the nuclear warheads of these submarines. We also build the torpedoes, although they are not very good ones. But the ballistic rockets and the cruise missiles which our submarines fire, the systems which guide them and the intelligence on which their targeting depends are all American. We could sink the Belgrano on our own. But we cannot fire a cruise missile except as part of an American operation. We have never had an independent nuclear deterrent, and do not have one now. Our ballistic missile submarines operate by kind permission of the Americans, and would rapidly become useless if we fell out with them. Since it is no longer clear why we need a nuclear deterrent, that probably does not matter. But it makes our admirals very nervous about irritating their US counterparts.

Our soldiers are as professional as our sailors. They are particularly good at operating at the lower level of violence?in Bosnia, in Sierra Leone, and in other trouble spots—where the skills they have learned in Northern Ireland are particularly valuable. They are better at this sort of fighting than the Americans. They are also very competent at the higher level: real wars like the Falklands, Iraq in 1991 and again now. But at this level, our independence is severely constrained. We would have lost the Falklands war without US intelligence and weapons. We could barely operate in Iraq, either in 1991 or today, without US target intelligence, air cover and logistic support. Our military dependence will only increase as the Americans move even further up the scale of technical military sophistication, a move which neither we nor anyone else can follow. British forces will no doubt be able to go on operating independently in minor peacekeeping or counter-insurgency operations. But in anything like a real war they will only operate as an integral part of a US force, under US command and serving US interests. In the very unlikely event that we are once again left to defend our interests on our own in a real war, we will be as dependent on the Americans for success, as we were in the Falklands.

It is not quite the same with our intelligence agencies. The Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) is relatively independent: it manages spies, and that is a cottage industry not much affected by technological change. The same goes for our Security Service (MI5). Both agencies are of substantial importance to the Americans in the war against terrorism, which is a matter of painstaking intelligence and police work, where cruise missiles are of little help. However, in the complex and expensive world of communications intelligence—meaning eavesdropping and codebreaking—we remain heavily dependent on the US. The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) at Cheltenham, the successor to those who broke the Germans' Enigma codes, provides a small but useful additional contribution to the massive US effort. The US could get on perfectly well without GCHQ's input. GCHQ, on the other hand, is heavily reliant on US input and would be of little value without it.

The apologists for the special relationship claim that it gives us a particular influence over US policy: we are Greeks to the American Romans, in Harold Macmillan's famous phrase (he forgot that the Romans' Greek advisers were slaves or, at best, freedmen). One of the main reasons why Attlee and Bevin wanted a British atom bomb after 1945 was to get access to US strategic thinking, in order to stop the Americans doing silly things such as launching a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. This was futile, as well as arrogant; the Americans were perfectly capable of working out for themselves why preventive nuclear war was a bad idea, and on lesser matters they never took much notice of what the British said, except on matters of tactics.

The special relationship does have one undoubted political advantage. It enables British prime ministers to cut an impressive figure as statesmen on the world scene. Blair's visits to Washington and Camp David during the Kosovo crisis, after 11th September, and in the run-up to the war on Iraq have made him a hero in America. He and his advisers like that. But if Blair has had any influence on US policy in the last six years, it has been on packaging only. He failed to get the US to make a timely commitment to put troops on the ground in Kosovo. He did get Bush to go for a second UN resolution to authorise war on Iraq, but only because the American soldiers were not yet in place. Once they were, the war went ahead regardless of the diplomacy. Britain's importance to America was made brutally clear by Donald Rumsfeld when he said—correctly enough—that America could perfectly well go ahead and fight the war without the British. But Blair had to go along, because by then he was too far in to withdraw. We were bound to the American chariot with no scope for independent manoeuvre of our own.

Tony Blair is patently sincere. He believes in the moral and practical justification for war on Iraq. He and his advisers argue that they have secret information which would convince the rest of us, if we could only be told what it is. This is the regular recourse of a government in a fix: it was used by Eden at Suez. But in a mature and open democracy, the citizens usually have as much information as they need to make up their minds. That was true in 1956. It is true in 2003. Many of Blair's fellow countrymen rejected the moral and political arguments for war. The military campaign has been relatively well managed. But the more ambitious Anglo-American objectives have yet to be attained: democracy welcomed in much of the Arab world, a rapid solution to the Palestine problem, a check to the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and a serious curb on terrorism.

Blair has never, of course, tried to argue that the special relationship is the be-all and end-all of British foreign policy. He has regularly spoken of the importance of our other relationships: in the UN, in Nato and in Europe. But his blind adherence to the US position on Iraq has left his wider policy in tatters.

The wounds will mend, at least in part. In the run-up to the war, many predicted that the first and worst casualty would be the UN. The Anglo-Americans argued that if the UN did not vote the way the US required, it would condemn itself to irrelevance. The idea that an institution's authority can be sustained by bending it to the will of its most powerful member is bizarre. But the UN's authority was never as great as its supporters would have liked, and the risk of its being undermined is correspondingly diminished. The permanent members of the Security Council have always ignored or vetoed its resolutions when they felt the need. During the cold war, it functioned as little more than a platform for the propaganda of both sides. Yet the UN survived because all its members found it useful: a uniquely valuable place to meet enemies as well as friends; and a mechanism for putting together a huge range of functions—peacekeeping, aid, health—prime concerns for most of its members. The UN will stagger on-a muddled, expensive, inefficient body to which even the hyperpower will find itself returning.

Nato too will probably survive in some shape or form. Its role as an integrated military organisation is now over. The Balkan upheavals convinced the Americans that they were better off fighting untrammelled by a bunch of argumentative, incompetent and mean-spirited allies. They made that brutally clear when Nato offered its help after 11th September. But institutions are notoriously hard to kill off. And, in any case, Nato is still useful to the Americans because it legitimises their military presence and political influence in Europe. It provides comfort to the new members in the east. But in the absence of a credible military threat, it is not so clear what use Nato is to the western Europeans. Perhaps it may come to serve everyone's purposes as a forum for the management of security in Europe as a whole.

Blair has, however, inflicted real damage on Britain's relationship with its main EU partners. He said that he intended to put Britain at the heart of EU policymaking and to promote a common European foreign and defence policy. If he had devoted half the moral passion, commitment, and drive into getting us into the euro that he has devoted to the war on Iraq, we would be there by now. Instead, Blair and his spokesmen have helped the Bush administration to divide Europe into old and new, and launched a barrage of cheap denigration against our most important European partners, the French and the Germans, because of their failure to agree with him over policy on Iraq. Old suspicions of Britain's role in Europe have been reawakened amongst the continentals. They wonder if General de Gaulle was right after all.

Any sensible politician—indeed any sensible person—wants to have their cake and eat it. Prime ministers have always argued that Britain does not have to choose between Europe and America. Blair has now made it harder to avoid the choice. But in looking at where we go next, one argument needs to be knocked firmly on the head, and that is the argument about national sovereignty. Many Britons fear that British sovereignty will be further eroded inside the EU, and they would like to disentangle themselves from it. The same people are now arguing for an even more intimate relationship with America. They fail to point out that this would constrain British sovereignty at least as much. Being in bed with an elephant may enable us feebly to punch above our weight. But the other Europeans weigh much the same as we do, and our voice in Brussels is more decisive than it could ever be in Washington. Our partners know that a convincing Europe cannot be built without the British. The British cannot for long ignore the continent of which they are part. But we will not be heard as we deserve to be unless we dismantle the image in Europe that Britain is Washington's poodle—an image that has come perilously close to reality.

Getting closer to Europe does not mean breaking with the Americans. But it is not good enough to say to the Americans, as Ruth said to her mother-in-law Naomi: "Whither thou goest, I will go." We owe it to ourselves, to our sense of sovereignty and self-respect as well as for more mundane reasons, to make it clear to them that our foreign policy interests can diverge from theirs and that, if they do, we will defend them as stoutly as we defend our commercial and economic interests. The submariners, the codebreakers and the politicians will be terrified of the risks which even a mild challenge to the Americans might pose to their parochial interests. Of course, if the Americans decided to cut us off at the knees, our missiles would rapidly become useless and we would have great difficulty in pointing them in the right direction. We would, in fact, be rather worse off than the French.

The British have sneered at the French deterrent for decades. What use would it be, they would ask, against the Soviet Union? That is not an argument which cuts much ice these days. And the French deterrent is at least independent. The French make their own missiles, unlike the British; and they have their own spy satellites. Of course, these are much less powerful than the US technology to which we now have access. But they are powerful enough to deter or to punish a rogue state such as Saddam's Iraq. If the Americans chose to leave us high and dry, one option would be to revive the idea of Anglo-French nuclear collaboration once favoured by Edward Heath.

But the nuclear business is not the most important. What is important is that the Europeans should be able to deal with the security problems that are most likely to face them in the foreseeable future. They already have much of the capability, and their record in the past decade has been much better than they have been given credit for in America. Most of the forces deployed in the Balkans in the past decade have been European. The Italians ran a very neat peacekeeping operation in Albania a few years ago. British and French forces were the only ones to see military action on the ground in Bosnia. The French suffered over 60 casualties. It was the Anglo-French brigade that drove the besieging Serbs off the mountains around Sarajevo in 1995. The Europeans have the technical capacity to put together defence forces to manage most problems in their own continent. The political will to do so might be more forthcoming if they knew that they could no longer rely on the Americans. At present it is far too easy for them to run to nanny if they get into trouble.

In recent weeks Washington has resounded with scornful language about the uselessness of America's old European allies. There has been talk of moving US bases from Germany and, perhaps, a desire to get even with the Europeans once the war is over. That would be self-defeating. The Americans need European bases. They need even more the bases in Britain and on the remote British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean from which their B52s take off to plaster targets all over the middle east. The British have never questioned the purposes for which the Americans use these bases. The agreements which govern them leave us little scope to do so. It is yet another derogation from British sovereignty.

In practice, the debate in Washington is usually more noisy and extreme than the policy which emerges. The Americans are unlikely to respond to a show of British independence by withdrawing all co-operation; if they did, it would be a sign that they did not place much store by that co-operation in the first place. They are pragmatists, and work with those who can give them something useful in return. There have even been rumours over the decades that they work on nuclear matters with the French. We need not and should not provoke a confrontation. But a junior partner who is taken for granted is a junior partner with no influence. In dealing with the Americans we need to follow the basic principle of negotiation: you must always make it clear that you will, if necessary, walk away from the table. That is something that British prime ministers, submariners, and codebreakers have been loath to contemplate. But Turkey has shown the way. Barely a month after Turkey had refused America permission to cross its territory, Colin Powell was back in Ankara mending fences. If the Turks can do it, so can we. It is one of the opportunities that victory can bring.