“Even if we never win an election, at least we’ve met Nelson Mandela,” one of the Tory leader’s aides said to him after the meeting.
Britain, he will say, should be far more independent of America â€“ and more willing to condemn aberrations such as Guantanamo Bay. In Mr Cameron’s view, the special relationship needs to be rebalanced; Mrs Thatcher was never afraid to have a row with Ronald Reagan and made sure everybody knew about it. As one aide put it to me: “We want lots of Love Actually moments.” It is telling that the Conservatives have invited John McCain, the Republican presidential hopeful, who has crossed swords with Mr Bush over everything from Iraq to climate change, to address their party conference next month. ~The Daily Telegraph
I don’t quite know what it says that Cameron’s people think meeting Nelson Mandela is a sufficient consolation for remaining a permanent opposition party, but I think it says everything about Cameron that needs to be said. Like or dislike Nelsona Mandela if you please, but to make a high priority of a sort of pop celeberity idolisation of a man of rather dubious political affiiliations (as far as most Tories are concerned anyway) is to betray a fatally frivolous side. But the only thing that worries me more about Mr. Cameron than his frivolity is when he becomes terribly serious–or attempts to play at it–by such spectacles as his ridiculous attack on Thatcher’s view of the ANC.
Now I happen to like Love Actually on the whole (though, yes, there are problems with it, as there are with so many things in cinema these days) and I particularly enjoyed the scene where Hugh Grant’s Prime Minister gives the special relationship a good swift kick to the face. The film came out at the peak of the Cult of Blair in this country (a cult, you may notice, which has fewer and fewer vocal members these days), and it was delightful to see that cult and the entire relationship that it represented mocked and ridiculed very effectively.
I fully expect other nations, including long-time allies, to take contrary positions as and when it suits their national interests to do so. Only a tyrant ot a petulant child, or a petulantly childish tyrant, expects blind obedience from allies and reacts as so many Americans reacted when France and Germany “betrayed” us by taking up opposition to the Iraq war, as if they owed us something. Many people believed that they did owe us something for past aid, as if sentimentality was a proper thing to introduce into foreign policy. If there is anything more silly than complaining about being disliked in the world–Great Powers are never loved, but tolerated–it is the complaint about ungrateful foreigners who don’t appreciate all that we’ve done for them. The question in foreign policy is no different from that in domestic politics: “What have you done for me lately?” The British who ask Americans this question will be left with no answer, because there is none to give. They have been used and abused, their good name tied to our appalling war in Iraq and further dragged down by their tacit association with our cheerleading for the devastation of Lebanon. Tory “Cavaliers” and Labourites alike have very solid grounds for resenting the “special relationship,” and any American who respects Britain as something more than our forward base of operations or a loyal province that will do our bidding has to be chagrined at the treatment of the Mother Country by our government.
I have enjoyed my three visits to Britain, I typically enjoy British culture and I have good things to say about the Loyalists, though I don’t consider myself (orthography notwithstanding) an Anglophile or someone liable to idealise the good old days of Empire. The Empire contributed impressively to the regions that it touched, and it also did a great deal of harm; it had a mixed record, as all things in this world do, but generally worked to the detriment of Britain itself in the end. Now the phantom of Empire keeps urging British people on to attach themselves to the new hegemon so that they can keep being players in the Great Game. The British people do not benefit from this, and have positively suffered because of it, and a critical reevaluation of the whole arrangement is long overdue. To that extent, a new Tory-led direction away from the “special relationship” would be a good thing for both nations: it would teach Washington that it cannot assume British support in virtually everything, which would cultivate a new, different kind of respect for our old ally, and also allow Britain to pursue legitimate interests even when they diverge from ours. That is the kind of healthy relationship that we should have with all states, rather than running our international relationships with all the tact and wisdom of a wife-beater.
Hegemons who batter and abuse their allies wind up suffering evil consequences if they are not careful. Athens’ heavy-handed treatment of allies bred resentment and provided the occasion for her humiliation at the hands of Sparta; Rome was almost overwhelmed by the power of disgruntled, ill-used allies in the Social War, and we could very well have seen the rise of the Samnite Empire instead of the Roman thanks to the pettiness of Rome towards her allies. Once the bonds of goodwill are snapped, they are not easily mended, and so we are very lucky that the British have not lost all patience with us.
While I consider it very important to emphasise the precisely British culture that is at the heart of being American (because American identity very quickly ceases to mean very much once we abandon this), and while I may seem unduly concerned with righting the old wrongs of 1642 and 1688 in a way that suggests an odd preoccupation with the internal quarrels of specifically British history, I do not believe in any “special relationship” with Britain.
Not only would I consider a genuine “special relationship” a bad idea if one existed (it savours of Hamiltonian Anglophilia, the Eastern Establishment and all things Wilsonian), but I literally don’t believe it exists anymore. It may have existed in a sense once in Wilson’s or FDR’s time. But today there is a relationship of domination and dependence, which is not “special,” except in the minds of Americans who fawn over the celebrity royals and the ignorant masses who have joined the Winston Churchill Fan Club. But as silly people are wont to do, they mistake liking Britain or gushing over Jane Austen novels to be the same thing as sharing necessarily similar interests in international affairs. It is democratic irrationality on the international scale: you are like me and I identify with you, therefore you must have the same goals that I have when it comes to Russia (or Iran or Iraq or China, etc.) policy.
As Love Actually portrayed so well, the relationship has been since Suez the relationship of master and servant. The President proposes, and the Prime Minister disposes. This is an appalling way of running an alliance, because sooner or later the weaker partner will seek a better deal from somebody else (or a group of others) and leave you, the stronger partner, in the lurch. Lady Thatcher may have spoken her mind when she disagreed with Reagan, but she was still speaking from the position of a particularly cheeky servant, whether she or anyone else in Britain wanted to admit it or not. Blair showed the depths to which a sycophantic Britain could sink, and most people in Britain rebelled at the servility they saw, which is why the “poodle” image caught on and became popular. Some people in Britain may still want to play a part in the power politics of the world, but that is no reason for the Prime Minister to imitate all of the appearance of a Wormtongue.
It was, is, embarrassing for any self-respecting nation to kow-tow to any other in such an abased fashion. The strange thing for me is that the people some Americans might expect to find most on the anti-hegemonist side among the Tories, the Euroskeptics, are too busy polishing their busts of Cromwell and talking about “compassionate conservatism” in between denunciations of Brussels to know what the British national interest is. The oddity and the real misfortune in all this is that the Europhile Tories, so infuriatingly unwilling to defend British sovereignty vis-a-vis Europe, seem to be the only ones in their party who recognise the equally ruinous effects of American domination on British national interests. Cameron’s turn against the “special relationship,” like his general attitude, is probably much more frivolous and ill-conceived than that of Sir Malcolm Rifkind. He is doing it for the same reason he turned against Thatcher’s South Africa policy of engagement long after it had any practical importance to take a position on this: to show that he is a new kind of Tory, not beholden to the old ways. If some previous Tory leaders have sought to become Mr. Bush’s lapdog to outdo the poodle at his own game (see William Hague), then Mr. Cameron will show that he is different–not necessarily because he really is different (though he might be), but because he thinks it will be advantageous if people think that he is. Beyond this he has no more coherent sense of what defines British interests than Tony Blair does. I will be glad to see the day when all talk of the “special relationship” is gone forever, but I am also eagerly anticipating the day when we will no longer have our intelligence insulted by the grinning buffoon who currently heads the Conservative Party.