Not quite special

Published : Aug 27, 2010 00:00 IST

Britain's new leaders have begun to question the country's supposed special relationship with the United States.

GREAT BRITAIN has lost an Empire and not yet found a role, Dean Acheson said in a speech on December 6, 1972. The British rightly resented this insolent pronouncement by an overrated United States Secretary of State. If John F. Kennedy had listened to him during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a nuclear catastrophe would have followed. When he was in office, the United Kingdom supported him on all major issues, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, Korea and the rest. The remark rankled because it revealed a certain disdain for The Most Faithful Ally a la the Nizam of Hyderabad for the British. Like beauty the special relationship between the U.S. and the U.K. resided only in the eyes of the beholder, the desperate Brits. Their Prime Minister's recent visit to the U.S. was heralded by the BBC proclaiming it, accurately, as reflecting a necessary relationship, not a special one which never existed. It is amazing how, unlike Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill subordinated himself to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The change has not come all of a sudden. Con Coughlin, executive editor of the Daily Telegraph wrote recently: The radical reappraisal of British foreign policy undertaken by Prime Minister David Cameron's new coalition government has raised serious questions about the future of Britain's historic alliance with Washington. It has also provoked deep divisions among senior ministers over how long British troops will remain committed to combat operations in Afghanistan ( Wall Street Journal, July 9, 2010). The British have come to realise that American assessments on world affairs are not gospel. Tony Blair, immortalised in Geoffrey Whatcroft's mini classic Yo! Blair is a figure of fun not unmixed with contempt. What is he doing in West Asia as an envoy? Nothing. The job is meant to save his self-esteem or what is left of it.

During the election campaign, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said on April 22: If Britain wants to prepare for the future and not be imprisoned by the past, if we want to understand these future challenges of the world and understand how to play an effective role in shaping the world according to our values and interests, we are going to have to release ourselves from the historic spell of default Atlanticism. He acknowledged that there had been very profound differences between Britain and the U.S., particularly on the issue of the George Bush-Dick Cheney orchestrated war on terror.

Americans, under President Barack Obama, themselves want a change in the relationship, he said. It is embarrassing to see the Labour and Conservative leaders slavishly propagate the so-called special relationship', when it is clear that Americans themselves are looking beyond Britain to engage with Europe. Clegg is now Deputy Prime Minister in a coalition with the Conservative Party.

Around the same time, a report by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired by the Labour Member of Parliament Mike Gape, poured scorn on the notion of a special relationship. It noted: The perception that the British government was a subservient poodle' to the U.S. administration leading up to the period of the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath is widespread both among the British public and overseas. This perception, whatever its relation to reality, is deeply damaging to the reputation and interests of the U.K.

It added that the idea of a special relationship, envisaged by Churchill and Roosevelt in the Second World War, is dead. The use of the phrase special' in its historical sense to describe the totality of the ever-evolving U.K.-U.S. relationship is potentially misleading, and we recommend that its use should be avoided. The overuse of the phrase by some politicians and many in the media serves simultaneously to devalue its meaning and to raise unrealistic expectations about the benefits the relationship can deliver to the U.K. It urged the government to be less deferential and more willing to say no' to the U.S. We recommend that the government should establish a comprehensive review of the current arrangements governing U.S. military use of facilities within the U.K. and in British overseas territories (Hasan Suroor's report in The Hindu; April 1, 2010).

Documents published later showed how far apart Roosevelt and Churchill were. The latter complained during the war that he was hemmed in between the great Russian bear on one side of me and on the other side the great American buffalo.

On February 20, 1944, Churchill wrote to Roosevelt: There is apprehension in some quarters here that the United States has a desire to deprive us of our oil assets in the Middle East [West Asia] on which, among other things, the whole supply of our navy depends. I am sure these suspicions are entirely unfounded so far as the Government of the United States is concerned. [But] I am sure to be asked for an assurance that the question of transfer of property will arise and I shall be unable to give such an assurance. Roosevelt's reply was dismissive. He said that against the British apprehensions of American designs, I am disturbed about the rumour that the British wish to horn in on Saudi Arabia oil resources (Anne Orde; The Eclipse of Great Britain; Macmillan, page 149). The author remarks, Churchill set out to woo the President. Roosevelt did not reciprocate (page 158).

An erudite essay on Managing the Americans: Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan and the Pursuit of Power-by-Proxy' in the 1950s by Kevin Ruane and James Ellison cites chapter and verse to show British resentment at American behaviour. It is aptly subtitled the pursuit of power-by-proxy'. On China and South-East Asia, London made plain its objections to American policies, only, however, to sail along. Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden complained in 1954: They like to give orders, and if they are not obeyed at once they become huffy. His Suez adventure reflected a quest for independence but in a singularly destructive manner. It harmed Britain.

After his resignation as Prime Minister, Eden lamented, in December 1957, that Britain seems content to tag along as [the] 49th State of the United States, tho[ugh] this American gov[ernment] cannot run the other 48. A year later, he remained unhappy that we let Americans do just as they like. Of this I am sure. American policy will ruin us. Nobody cares.

Macmillan differed. He was an unrepentant believer in interdependence. But, in time, Macmillan came to share Eden's scepticism of reliance on the Americans.

Ultimately, both leaders concluded, for different reasons, that the American proxy was not the solution to Britain's long-term economic and foreign policy problems and that the Anglo-American relationship could not alone be relied upon to uphold Britain's world position ( The Foreign Office and British Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century edited by Gaynar Johnson; Routledge; 164).

The views Christopher Meyer, the feisty British Ambassador to the U.S. (1997-2003), on that relationship are refreshingly frank: When ambassador in Washington, I would not allow the phrase special relationship' inside the embassy. I was worried that my staff would approach their work with a set of delusions: that Britain's relations with the U.S. were different in kind from those with any other country; that the Americans would therefore grant us special benefits, unavailable to other nations; and that as a result, developing a relationship with the U.S. of advantage to Britain would require less effort than with other governments. I wanted our diplomats to take nothing for granted.

A phrase like this must be deployed with great caution. It merits use only to describe those very few relationships where foreign government has the ability significantly to influence U.S. politics and, through this, the direction of U.S. foreign policy. Only Israel, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia and the Irish Republic have shown this quality consistently over the years. It is measured as much by influence in the U.S. Congress as with the U.S. administration itself. British influence has rarely been in this category.

To younger Americans, especially immigrants, the U.K. was as remote as any other European country. Every year, in September, I used to address new arrivals at the embassy, with their families. The core of my message was always the same: think of the U.S. as a foreign country. Then you will be pleasantly surprised by the many things you find in common with this most generous and hospitable of peoples. Think of America as Britain writ large and you risk coming to grief; American attitudes to patriotism, religion, crime and punishment, schooling, sex, the outside world, can be very different from those of Europeans, including the British. For the novice British diplomat it comes as a shock to discover that most Americans, whether Republican or Democrat, sophisticate or redneck, believe that their country's actions in the world are intrinsically virtuous; and more fool those countries that do not recognise this.

His counsel is explicit. At the right moment there is no substitute for being as tough and direct in negotiation as the Americans are invariably with us. Americans have a striking ability to compartmentalise their sincere affection for Britain from their single-minded pursuit of national interest ( DC Confidential; Weidenfeld & Nicolson; pages 56-60).

Britain sold itself short. It had a store of wisdom on foreign policy unmatched in the U.S. Read the speeches on foreign affairs in the House of Commons in the 19th century and you will realise the striking contemporary relevance of much that was said morality and foreign policy, regime change, intervention in other countries and the futility of parliamentary resolutions on foreign policy.

Douglas Hurd's splendid book contains a good glimpse of that reservoir. It covers the period from 1809, when Foreign Secretary Robert Stewart Castlereagh and Secretary for War and the Colonies George Canning fought a duel, until our times, though the detailed record of pairs of Foreign Secretaries ends with Ernest Bevin and Anthony Eden.

Douglas Hurd was Foreign Secretary from 1989 to 1995, trained as a Foreign Office diplomat, and wrote a series of novels. (See Mark Stuart's profile in British Foreign Secretaries Since 1974; Routledge; pages 195-229.) India's Ministers for External Affairs have been a varied lot. After the Titanic figure of Nehru, they fell into three categories. Men of quiet competence (Swaran Singh and P.V. Narasimha Rao); the loud, flamboyant ones (M.C. Chagla, Dinesh Singh, Inder Kumar Gujral, Jaswant Singh and K. Natwar Singh). The third category comprises men of sheer genius whom the chanceries of the world refuse to forget. They left indelible imprints on our foreign policy; to wit, Shyam Nandan Mishra of Lusaka (1979) fame, which he shared with the fiercely ambitious, serpentine Foreign Secretary Jagat S. Mehta, who was angling for the post of Secretary-General of the Commonwealth. We lost ignominiously. Mishra was shown the door by the electorate. Jagat Mehta was booted out twice over, in rapid succession by two Prime Ministers, Charan Singh and Indira Gandhi. There came, next, Bali Ram Bhagat, N.D. Tiwari, P. Shiv Shankar, Madhavsinh Solanki and Yashwant Sinha, who, having made a mess in the Finance Ministry, decided to exercise his talents in the Ministry of External Affairs, elbowing out a distraught Jaswant Singh. Out of office, Yashwant Sinha now tries energetically to demonstrate that he was not as ignorant of foreign affairs as people suspect.

The volume covers 11 British Foreign Secretaries. Its lively style does not obscure scholarship. Hurd and Edward Young scoured many an archive. It was partly written by Hurd in longhand and partly by Young on his laptop. They begin with the Castlereagh-Canning duel and proceed to discuss the differences on policy which tore them apart. They seek to distil lessons from the past. The book is studded with gems of wisdom set out in simple elegant prose, far removed from the laboured, dense prose of clever, clever Henry Kissinger.

What should be the balance between the interest of a nation and the ideals which its leaders or its people profess? Is an ethical foreign policy a contradiction, or a hypocrisy, or a realistic ambition? Should it be the aim of Britain or any other major power to exert itself on behalf of a particular form of government in other countries, whether based on democracy or some alternative legitimacy? Can this aim extend to intervention by force? What is the role of alliances between nations? Of international institutions with rules binding all? How important is national prestige and how is it best expressed and sustained?

The circumstances in which these questions were posed varied greatly as the nineteenth century evolved through two world wars towards the twenty-first. In one form, they faced Canning and Castlereagh as they brought Britain to a decisive victory over Napoleon and then had to decide what to build on the ruins of Europe. In another form, they faced Eden and Bevin who after another victory, against Nazism in 1945, undertook a similar task among a new pile of ruins.

We cannot disregard the differences made by time. We must resist the temptation simply to recruit our characters into one of two opposed regiments of thought. But in different shapes, those questions persist. History provides no automatic system of navigation for our leaders. Knowledge of history does not change politicians into statesmen. But ignorance of history is foolishness. The most dangerous form of ignorance is that smidgeon of shallow knowledge which lacks any understanding of the characters or context of past decisions. The false analogy can be more disastrous than the blank mind.

As Edmund Burke put it in his celebrated Reflections on the Revolution in France, In history a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind.

Drawing from history

To most Indian writers all this is irrelevant. As one Secretary-General of the Ministry of External Affairs wrote: A Foreign Office is essentially a custodian of precedents. We had no precedents to fall back upon, because India had no foreign policy of her own until she became independent. We did not even have a section for historical research until I created one. Our policy therefore necessarily rested on the intuition of one man, who was Foreign Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Fortunately his intuition was based on knowledge. Indian experts on foreign policy are either Nehru-baiters in the name of realpolitik or his self-appointed defenders. The rich record of diplomacy they disdain to consult. This book will go a long way to instruct them.

The great Castlereagh did not hesitate to consult history. His research led him to a memorandum on the Deliverance and Security of Europe, which William Pitt drew up in 1805. The plan came to nothing at the time, but it fitted Castlereagh's worldview. Pitt wrote: In order to render this Security as complete as possible, it seems necessary, at the period of a general Pacification, to form a Treaty to which all the principal powers of Europe should be parties and they should all bind themselves mutually to protect and support each other, against any attempt to infringe them it should re-establish a general and comprehensive system of Public Law in Europe, and provide, as far as possible, for repressing future attempts to disturb the general Tranquillity, and above all, for restraining any projects of Aggrandisement and Ambition similar to those which have produced all the calamities inflicted on Europe since the disastrous era of the French Revolution.

The authors remark: By the end of 1813 Castlereagh and the Cabinet were drawing up proposals for a treaty not to terminate with the War, but to contain defensive Engagements with eventual obligations to support the Powers attack'd by France, with a certain extent of Stipulated Succours. With this talk about defensive Engagements and Stipulated Succours, we see the start of modern collective security.

On May 5, 1820, Castlereagh, under pressure from Canning's sniping, produced a more modest State Paper. It was for a union for the Reconquest and Liberation of a great proportion of the Continent of Europe from the Military Dominion of France. It never was intended as an Union for the Government of the World, or for the Superintendence of the Internal Affairs of other States.

The test came over Greece. Ottoman Turkey was an important check to Russia's expansion, but British public opinion loathed its actions in Greece. The dilemma plagued British policy until the end of the Ottoman Empire.

In this volume one sees the great Palmerston at work, so also the great Salisbury, Derby, Disraeli and others. Foreign Secretaries wrote in red ink. Admiration for Ernest Bevin is as unconcealed as it is fulsome. Bevin was infuriated by the seemingly ruthless treatment of Britain by the USA. In September he wrote a long letter to Sir Stafford Cripps, pouring out his frustration. When the Prime Minister made his statement in the House on Lend-Lease we were met with headlines in the United States in certain papers calling us Cry-babies. We ignored it, but all this percolates through to the British people and while you will appreciate as I do that there are no more generous souls in the world, yet there are no more combative people if they feel they are being treated unfairly.'

Bevin tried to console himself with a mixture of patriotism and pugnacity. Deep down, Bevin had never been attracted by the vision which Churchill had conjured up during the war of a future Anglo-American world. In November 1945 the Americans sent Bevin a list of bases which they wanted to occupy. Bevin sent the list to Churchill, asking for advice. Churchill's response to this inquiry was uplifting and evasive. I have not studied particular islands and bases in detail on the map. There were more important issues at stake than a few rocks on the sea: a special and privileged relationship between Great Britain and the United States makes us both safe for ourselves and more influential as regards building up the safety of others through the international machine. Our duties to mankind and all states and nations remain paramount, and we shall discharge them all the better hand in hand. The future of the world depends upon the fraternal association of Great Britain and the Commonwealth with the United States.'

But a few pages later, the authors quote Churchill on Bevin: His foreign policy cannot be reconciled with any integral theme of thought. It has been swayed, and at times dominated, by his personal likes and dislikes, strengthened by pride and enforced by obstinacy. The authors add: Churchill's analysis was right; his judgment was wrong. In Britain today we now argue about the special relationship with America. Churchill was the main original author of the relationship; it was Bevin who turned it into a working institution. After the war, it became clear that Churchill's vision of an English-speaking alliance between Britain and America was largely a matter of inspiring rhetoric. Bevin followed the facts through a range of complicated alternatives before in the end fastening on and inventing the North Atlantic Alliance which still protects the U.K. today.

It was Bevin who perfected the practice of acting as a junior partner to the USA. Of course, Bevin was by instinct unhappy with the new role. He never lost that slightly patronising sense of superiority which Eden also felt about American policy in the Middle East. But once these instincts were out of the way, Bevin did what all good allies do best he argued and submitted.

The authors wisely caution: Events are wayward and there are no straight lines in history. Castlereagh and Canning would have both been baffled by the very different scene which confronted David Miliband. Governments sometimes drive, are more often driven by, circumstances. Prime Ministers and Foreign Secretaries find themselves seeking shelter in places far removed from the haven where they would be. They feel compelled to act in ways contrary to the principles which they have preached. Thus Palmerston, the liberal interventionist, sat idle while the Poles were brutally suppressed and the Danes bullied out of Schleswig-Holstein. Aberdeen, who hated war, led his country into a harrowing and avoidable conflict in the Crimea. Austen Chamberlain, having brought Germany back into the community of nations in 1925, became after 1933 Germany's sternest critic. Eden, the glamorous young hero of the League of Nations, ended his career by launching an aggressive war.

Lost opportunities

By far the most relevant passages in the book are those which discuss three lost opportunities for establishing a stable and legitimate world order in 1919, 1945 and 1989. The United Nations and its affiliated institutions were based on the power structure of the day. The authors' views on this important theme bear quotation in extenso: That was the settlement and these are the institutions under which we live today. There they stand, like palaces on a hill, more than half a century old, still impressive when seen from afar, and in the constant bustle of their activity measured in innumerable meetings. But as one gets closer one sees the crumbling pillars, cracked steps and gaping holes in the roof through which the water pours. The weather of sixty years has done its work; none of the institutions is fit for its present purpose. In 2008 and 2009 the financial institutions were most clearly defective. But the same is true of the institutions designed to ensure peace or justice and the protection of human rights. For one modern need, the mastering of climate change, no international institution yet exists; the only worry about the future of the planet in 1945 was the atom bomb.

Looking back, we can see the missed opportunity for a fourth [ sic] settlement. When the Cold War ended in 1989 there was a sense of optimism and a period of wise American leadership under the first President Bush. This could have been the moment to replace or renew the palaces on the hill, strengthening sector by sector the rules by which even the powerful agree to be governed. But there seemed no need. The world was not in ruins, as before the first three settlements. To borrow a phrase from recent domestic British controversy; when the sun is shining it is tempting to forget about fixing the roof.

So the opportunity of 1989-90 was missed, and we are drifting. For the task of international renewal American leadership is essential, but the relative power of the United States has slipped away. The dangers besetting the world have multiplied; the world's response has become more feeble and incoherent. This inadequacy is concealed to some extent by suffocating clouds of rhetoric. In a media-driven world, speech is increasingly regarded by our leaders as a substitute for thought.

They hold: We need a new concert of nations, enshrined in a fourth settlement. They ask the U.S. to lead this process but overlook the fact that that country is too inebriated with hubris to reckon with the realities of today. Witness Barack Obama's refusal to negotiate with Iran. They overlook also the fact that George H.W. Bush cheated Mikhail Gorbachev. A great moment found a small man in the White House and a great one in the Kremlin.

Completely overlooked is the Russian factor. As Paul Johnson remarked, the Europeans committed collective suicide in the two world wars of the 20th century, just as the ancient Greeks destroyed themselves in the Pelopovesian disaster.

In 1919, the U.S. withdrew after helping the Allies with the war. In 1945, it stayed on to expand into a global empire. Stalin's Russia provided both an excuse and a justification. In 1944 in Moscow, Churchill concluded the Percentages Agreement with Stalin. The U.S. sabotaged it. Churchill testified that Stalin kept his word and kept his hands off Greece. Having lost 27 million lives in the war, Stalin was in no mood to trust anybody. He sought territorial gains from Hitler in 1940, from Churchill in 1941, and won them in 1944. Opposed by the U.S., he used brutal methods in Eastern Europe. Three decades later, when Kissinger was Secretary of State, State Department Counselor Helmut Sonnenfeldt propounded a doctrine which bore his name. It came close to the 1944 accord. NATO was built on a false fear that Stalin wanted to conquer Western Europe. The archives opened in recent years expose the falsehood. Stalin had no such design. NATO was built on a myth. The authors share it even now. After the end of the Cold War in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the U.S. expanded NATO's sway eastward.

Gorbachev's gestures of conciliation in 1989-1990 and Vladimir Putin's in 2001 were spurned.

The U.S. is not one to build a fair and just world order. Its power must be checked. Churchill sought to forge an accord with Stalin in 1950 but was opposed by Eden. De Gaulle relied on U.S. power but played an independent role in relations with the Soviet Union. Britain, alas, abdicated that role.

Now a new order must be built with the consent of Russia, China, India, Iran, Brazil and the European Union, that is, if it is able to speak with one voice to reclaim its self-respect and self-confidence. It will be a long haul. But the American century must end.

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