Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Anglo-Saxons and Anglophilia

A constructive U.S.-British relationship has no need for sentimental attachment.

I don’t attach much importance to this ginned-up controversy of the day, but there are a few things I would like to add to this “Anglo-Saxon heritage” debate. No one would seriously dispute that America has a British cultural and political inheritance. Russell Kirk wrote at length on the British culture that Americans inherited and reproduced in our literature, laws, and form of government. The American constitutional tradition draws heavily on the precedents established in Britain during the 17th century, and the origins of some our own political persuasions can be traced to political quarrels between the vying Country and Court factions of 18th century Britain. None of those inheritances and affinities required a close U.S.-U.K. relationship of the sort that has existed for the last seventy years.

The U.S.-U.K. relationship was remarkably poor and adversarial for at least the first sixty years following our independence in spite of the significant cultural ties that existed between our countries. Anglophobia remained strong for many more decades after that. Acknowledgment and respect for America’s British cultural inheritance in no way require anyone to indulge in the more recently-minted enthusiasm of Anglophilia in U.S. foreign policy. The silly controversy this week concerns whether one candidate should be viewed as more of an emotional Anglophile than another, since there are no meaningful or practical policy differences between the candidates that touch on the U.S.-U.K. relationship.

My response to the contest over who makes a better emotional Anglophile is: “who cares?” Why should it matter who has the stronger personal or emotional attachment to another country? That doesn’t mean that the person will be more capable of maintaining a better relationship with that country’s government. It’s possible that the emotional attachment will get in the way of relating to the other government and understanding the country as it exists in the present. Insofar as American Anglophilia depends on an understanding of Britain that is decades out of date, it will lead to more misunderstandings rather than fewer. At its worst, Anglophilia just becomes an excuse for imposing American priorities on Britain.

That is what occurred to me as I was reading Aaron David Miller’s article on Obama and Israel. Miller writes:

Unlike Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama isn’t in love with the idea of Israel. As a result, he has a harder time making allowances for Israeli behavior he doesn’t like. Obama relates to the Jewish state not on a values continuum but through a national security and interest filter [bold mine-DL].

If Miller’s interpretation is correct, I fail to see why this is a bad thing. The U.S.-British relationship would benefit from a similar approach. Indeed, during the last British general election and for several years before that the leaders of the coalition’s two parties had made a point of distancing themselves from an understanding of the “special relationship” in which Britain acted as the reliable deputy without ever receiving anything in return for its support. They were calling for a relationship that was still constructive and friendly, but not one-sided or blinded by sentiment. Similarly, Americans can cultivate good relations with Britain without feeling obliged to indulge in all of the rituals of Anglophilia.