Britain’s general election is on Thursday, but the Post is already starting the handwringing about the U.S.-U.K. relationship:
For the United States, however, the overarching result is already clear: A stalwart U.S. ally is growing weaker, more inwardly focused and less willing or able to join in common endeavors.
As I’ve said before, rumors of British “retreat” are greatly exaggerated when they are not flat-out lies, but to the extent that there is any truth to these claims it is important to put this change in perspective. Britain spent much of the last twenty-five years being involved to an extraordinary degree in “common endeavors” overseas with the U.S., none of which had much to do with British security or interests. If Britain has “retreated” from anything, it is the habit of reflexively siding with the U.S. in foreign wars, and the only people that should be dismayed by this are reflexive hawks.
This hyperactivity abroad reached an apogee under the Blair government, and since then British foreign policy has been gradually returning to something closer to normal, or at least something more like the pre-Blair status quo. The U.S. has become far too accustomed to assuming that Britain will automatically sign on to whatever ill-advised military action Washington decides that it “must” take, and that has made the relationship with Britain a very one-sided and unhealthy one. As the Post editorial demonstrates, this breeds an attitude that the value of the U.S.-British relationship can be measured in how “willing and able” it is to join the U.S. in meddling around the world. It is better for Britain that the U.S. can’t take British participation in its wars for granted, and on balance it is better for the U.S. that it won’t have Britain as a guaranteed backer of its wars of choice. If that can make our policymakers think more carefully before the next intervention, so much the better for all concerned. This is only a “loss” for the U.S. if one thinks that staying out of wars of choice is a bad thing.
If Britain is “more inwardly focused” than it was ten years ago, that is because there was never sustained public support for the open-ended wars to which Blair committed the country. Those wars understandably exhausted the public’s patience with foreign adventurism, and quite naturally soured them on devoting the resources to the military that made that adventurism possible. The lack of public support was made clear during the Syria debate in 2013, in which the vast majority of the public refused to go along with yet another unnecessary military intervention. Since that helped to keep the U.S. from blundering into a new war then, it benefited both countries. Insofar as the Syria episode woke up the British political class to the unpopularity of the meddlesome foreign policy that they tend to support, it was of even greater value to the health of Britain’s political system.
The reality is that the U.S. has done great harm to the relationship with Britain by abusing it for most of the last fifteen years, and successive British governments have cooperated in this abusive arrangement. We can’t abuse our closest allies, take them into disastrous and costly wars, and then not expect there to be a price in terms of lost political support for “common endeavors” later on. If the next British government has learned from some of the errors of its predecessors, that is good news for Britain and ultimately good news for the creation of a healthier, more balanced relationship between our countries. The next administration should welcome that development and learn how to work with a Britain whose cooperation it won’t be able to take for granted.