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The Unspecial Relationship

December 17, 2010

The relationship between Great Britain and the United States has long been fertile ground for political journalists – at least in the UK.

Paul Reynolds, the BBC’s world affairs correspondent, provides some interesting analysis on the state of that relationship in his article on the BBC website. The Wikileaks cables, he says, show a hardheaded attitude on the part of the US administration towards Britain. His conclusion on the assessment by US diplomats of the attitude towards the US by various British politicians is this:

The overall impression given by these telegrams is that Britain is regarded as a useful asset for the United States and that it must not be allowed to think otherwise.

But the underlying message of all this is that the relationship is defined in this way and if, or probably more likely when, the day arrives when the Brits cannot or will not offer so much, they will find that the relationship they still regard as “special” will be very much more ordinary.

If we were privy to British diplomatic cables on the subject, we might see a similar opportunistic and hardheaded attitude, especially among those who have studied the long history of the relationship.

And if I was a British diplomat, I would be pointing out to my masters, living as they do in their political bubble, that the relationship between the two countries has never been one between siblings or even cousins. Tribal perhaps, thanks to a common language and, to an extent, cultural heritage. But Brits forget that America is an amalgam of many cultural traditions. Among the power elite of America, politicians and businessmen of Irish, German, East European and Jewish (not to mention Kenyan) descent have no reason to love Britain. Even those with British genes proudly remember the part their ancestors played in casting off the colonial yoke in 1776.

It’s much more appropriate to observe that today’s Americans feel an affinity with “European” culture rather than the British heritage. People of German immigrant stock in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania might just as readily point to Goethe as to Shakespeare when talking about their European roots. And America’s newer immigrants from China, Vietnam, Korea and even Russia have a wholly different set of cultural bearings. Among them there is little affinity with “Old Europe”.

So there is and always has been a mismatch between the veneer of commonality shared by what Winston Churchill referred to as “English-speaking peoples”, and the underlying reality. Shared languages do not automatically result in similar mindsets.

My second point would be that relationships between countries are dynamic, not static, and always powered by self-interest. The generation that fought the Second World War was very different from that in power today. Churchill may have had an emotional affinity with the United States – his mother was American – but emotion played no part in his ruthless efforts to drag a reluctant America into the war on the British side.

Only the folly of the Japanese in bombing Pearl Harbor was enough to make the difference. Even then, President Roosevelt pursued an agenda designed to rid the world of the British Empire in the post-war world order. The Second World War may have been portrayed as a just war by the winning side, but my view is that altruism played no part in it except as a device to motivate those who were being asked to sacrifice themselves for the cause.

Today, politicians continue to use right and wrong to justify their foreign policy actions. But in a wired world, protestations by politicians about doing the right thing in Afghanistan and Iraq come under global scrutiny in a way unknown to the combatants of 1941. And the Wikileaks revelations provide us with an insight into the kind of underlying thought processes that took decades to surface after World War II.

My final point to my notional political masters would be that America has throughout its history undergone periods of national psychosis – periods of turmoil, division and ugly emotion. Previous episodes include the Civil War of 1861-65, the Great Depression of the 1930s, the anti-communist frenzy of the 1950s and the Vietnam War.

It is in one now. 9/11 traumatized America like no event since Pearl Harbor. The financial crisis of 2008-09 caused unemployment and financial distress not seen since the Great Depression. The level of paranoia – about terrorism, the economic and political rivalry with China and the perceived dilution of the “American way of life” by immigration and the policies of a President seen by many as an alien influence – is high. The ugly emotions and polarization of opinion caused by recent traumas make America an unpredictable political partner.

So who are Britain’s natural partners? An America convulsed by self-doubt and extreme polarities of opinion? A European Union in which the poorer nations are suffering from the economic hangover of a decade of debt-fuelled expansion, and the richer nations are struggling to insulate themselves from the debt contagion of the Eurozone? Commonwealth nations busy pursuing their own national agendas and paying little attention to the “mother country”?

The truth is that partnerships between nations are marriages of convenience. And Britain is no longer a centre of gravity in a political or economic sense, and can only react and respond to external circumstances beyond its control. Unless we discover hitherto unknown deposits of uranium, gold, oil or rare earth minerals, this will be our fate for the foreseeable future.

So we Brits would be well advised to learn to love ourselves as we are, not as we were or aspire to be. We should, to use a cricketing analogy, play each ball on its own merits. Economically, we should accept that we are no longer an industrial power but still possess the power of technological and intellectual innovation. Politically, we should accept that our relationships with other countries, like empires and political alliances, will wax and wane according to the dictates of events and mutual interest. Socially, we should rejoice at the opportunity to explore and be part of the bigger world while it is still open to us, and before political and environmental factors further erode the diversity of life and thought in front of us today.

We are among the least patriotic of nations, and I see that as a strength. Patriotism can breed nationalism and sometimes xenophobia. We don’t imprison people for insulting the Queen. We don’t outlaw the burning of the national flag. We are a tolerant nation, even if that quality might seem to be a disadvantage in the short term. We accept diversity of political thought, religious belief and sexual orientation. We still produce artists, scientists and thinkers who enrich the world.

Even though we may be going through our own national psychosis brought about by economic, social and political strains, I’d still put money on Britain in 50 year’s time being a better place than most to live in. So let’s celebrate what’s right about the country, and concentrate in the future on being good citizens of the world – regardless of the shifting sands of political relationships.

From → History, Social, UK, USA

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