William Wallace: The USA, Britain and the EU in a changing environment

Lord Wallace of Saltaire
Lord Wallace of Saltaire

Foreign Affairs Spokesperson William Wallace recently made a speech to the 2015 Weatherhead Center for International Affairs Conference. In his speech he discussed the Future of the Special Relationship:

The US-UK special relationship was born in the Second World War, and grew to maturity in the first decade of the Cold War.   It was a military partnership, in which the UK was America’s junior but nevertheless valuable ally, with bases and forces that extended to the Red Sea, the Arab/Persian Gulf and Singapore.  It was also an intelligence partnership – built by working together through the Second World War, and maintained and developed in the decades that followed.  On both sides it was underpinned by emotion and rhetoric, by shared memories of the war in Europe and by constructed images –  myths – of shared history and values.

The personal ties weakened as the generation of British and Americans who had worked and fought together during the war passed on.  The value of the partnership to the USA diminished as decolonisation shrank Britain’s global reach, and the strain of military spending on the British economy reduced the size of its armed forces.

There was also an underlying difference in assumptions about the purpose of the special relationship, which became more significant as continental Western Europe recovered.  The United States saw the relationship with Britain as an intrinsic part of its alliance with Europe and its leadership of ‘the West’, or ‘the Free World’.  Many within Britain, however, saw the special character of their privileged relationship with the USA as an alternative to Europe: a justification for Britain’s claim to be a world power, not just a European country, ‘punching above its weight’ in global diplomacy and security because of its privileged partnership with Washington.  The divergence of priorities was evident from the late 1950s, as American policy-makers pressed for Britain to join the infant European Economic Community and British ministers struggled to respond.  American grand strategy required Britain to play a leading role in building the European pillar of an Atlantic partnership, alongside France and a reviving Germany.  Many in Britain resisted the idea of partnership with France and Germany, as relegating their country to the second league; Britain, they insisted, had global interests and responsibilities far wider than the defeated and diminished continental states.  Inability to accept that Britain’s position is comparable to that of France and Germany underlies the British ‘problem’: the insistence on Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism which is seen to separate the UK from Germany and France.  But what divides Britain from the European continent above all is the collective memory – or myth – of the Second World War, as ‘our finest hour’, not as a disastrous period of war, occupation, and national humiliation.

I start by talking about the past when asked to talk about the future because the current debate within Britain about our relationship with Europe and the United States is intrinsically tied up with images and myths about the past, most of all about the Second World War and the golden age of Anglo-American partnership that followed it.  Timothy Garton Ash has described British thinking about our place in the world over the fifty years since then as ‘footnotes to Churchill’.  Winston Churchill wrote his History of the English-speaking Peoples to celebrate and entrench the special relationship, and in so doing embedded the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ narrative of English history – for this is an English, rather than a British, myth – in a new political generation.   In the 1960s and early 1970s successive British political leaders, from both main parties, attempted to reconcile the aftermath of decolonization, tightening economic constraints, and domestic reluctance to accept that Britain was no longer a power of the same rank as the United States and the Soviet Union, by withdrawing British forces from east of Suez and by joining the European Community – at the third attempt, in 1973.  But no prime minister, except the uncharismatic Edward Heath, ever challenged the Churchillian image of Britain as a world power with ‘three circles’ of influence, Atlantic, Commonwealth and European; in which the transatlantic link was the key to Britain’s status, and the European entanglement that which brought least gain.

Looking back, it was the Falklands War, far more than Margaret Thatcher’s battle over the European Community’s budget and Britain’s disproportionate contribution, which re-embedded the Anglo-Saxon narrative in Britain’s self-image of its place in the world.   Pride in our armed forces, projection of forces to the South Atlantic, the personal partnership that thereafter developed between Prime Minister Thatcher and President Reagan, the role that those around Thatcher saw her as playing in persuading the Reagan Administration to do business with Gorbachev: this was a period in which Britain appeared to walk tall in the world again, while the European continent hesitated.  The 1980s were formative years for the generation of British Conservatives who are now in power.  The Canadian and Australian newspaper proprietors who took over much of London’s right-wing media – Conrad Black and Rupert Murdoch – reinforced this Anglo-Saxon triumphalism, while also paying handsome fees to the bright young historians who provided their copy.  John Major only struggled to contain the anti-European fervour of his Anglo-Saxon right wing.  Tony Blair never challenged the power of the press, or its established narrative, before he too succumbed to the magic of the White House and Camp David, and allowed relations with Germany and France to weaken.

British elites saw – and many still see – their relationship with the United States as unique.  English history makes little mention of the American-French connection, from Lafayette to Pershing, or of the depth and continuing importance of the American-German relationship: the bedrock of early German immigration and influences, the intellectual power of the Central European diaspora which fled Berlin and Prague, Vienna and Heidelberg, in the 1930s, to colonise American universities and transform the German idea of Western civilization into the dominant concept of the cold-war Atlantic community.  Americans cherished their role in the shaping of West German democracy in the post second world war years, from the occupation and the Marshall Plan onwards, refreshed through the maintenance of six US divisions (and their extensive recreational, family and support systems) on German soil.  The British, who had as proud a record of assistance to divided Germany in the immediate post-war years, failed to maintain a similarly close emotional link; while the British Army of the Rhine was encamped in Germany, as a German defence minister once remarked to me, ‘as if they were encamped upon the plains of northern India’, with limited contacts with the natives.

And then there was the very special relationship between the United States and Italy, resting on the USA’s Italian-American community, its Roman Catholic hierarchy and its intelligence agencies.  The USA had many more special relationships with European countries than the English understood.  The French understood the importance of transforming the narrative of hostility between France and Germany into one of reconciliation and partnership, investing in extensive student and official exchanges as well as symbolic ceremonies and military parades.  The British briefly experimented with an exchange programme when they joined the European Community.  But that was stopped within five years of accession, and the British narrative of European integration reverted to matters of trade and the single market, denying that the European Community was from its foundation also about security, and about overcoming historical enmities and stereotypes.

The Special Relationship today

The current narrative of Britain’s place in the world is way out of line with the practical demands of day-to-day foreign and security policy, which nevertheless holds a firm grip on a substantial proportion of the British political and intellectual elite, with sympathetic echoes among the wider public.  Owen Paterson, a minister in Cameron’s coalition government, called a few weeks ago for the UK to leave the European Union and ‘revive the Anglosphere’.  The latest book published by Daniel Hannan MEP, one of the leading ideologists of right-wing Euroscepticism, is titled Inventing Freedom: How the English-speaking Peoples made the modern world.  It is a White Anglo-Saxon view of world history, with the protestant element left out.

There remain some special elements to the UK-US relationship.  The most important is the intelligence relationship, which includes three other Anglo-Saxon countries, Australia, Canada and New Zealand: useful and important to the USA, vital to the UK, underpinned by listening stations round the world.   The nuclear relationship is far more one-sided; the UK’s formally independent deterrent relies on US missiles and some continuing transfers of sensitive technology. The USA still has some bases in Britain, though far fewer than 20 years ago.  Diego Garcia, formally still a British possession, is an important US base for projecting power across the Indian Ocean and into the Gulf.  The British military staff in Washington is still larger than in any other capital (including Brussels/NATO); though successive cuts in British defence spending have reduced American interest in cooperation with UK forces, and the Parliamentary vote to resist British participation in the bombing of Syrian chemical weapons further lowered Washington’s interest in close security cooperation with London.

The instincts of British defence planners remain to judge themselves by their standing in Washington, and their ability to operate alongside American forces.  After a decade of junior partnership in Iraq and then in Afghanistan, with British setbacks both in Basra and in Helmand, some in the Ministry of Defence still hope to retain extra-European reach and closeness to US forces by expanding Britain’s staging post in Bahrain into a larger base, alongside the US Fifth Fleet.  But the Royal Navy has few ships spare to station there, and the RAF few aircraft.  The 2010 UK Strategic Defence and Security Review cut British forces below the level which many in the Pentagon considered necessary to make a significant allied contribution.  The 2015-16 SDSR, now under way, is likely to cut those forces further.

In operational terms, British foreign and security policy has become increasingly European in orientation.  The 1998 Franco-British Defence Cooperation Agreement was deepened in 2010.  Extensive exercises have taken place between British and French forces in the Western Mediterranean.  There has been growing military and political cooperation in North Africa and across the Sahel, facing the rising threat of international migration, crime, and terrorism.  There is even a degree of cooperation in military nuclear research.  In the Middle East the French and British compete to woo the Arab monarchies, above all in selling arms – a competition which the French are currently winning.  But in negotiations with Iran the two countries have worked closely in what the Americans call the ‘P5+1’, and the British, French and Germans ‘the E3+3’: an important difference of perspective which reflects the closeness of cooperation between the British, French and Germans on a range of diplomatic issues.  A recent academic study of voting in the UN by P5 countries since the end of the cold war has shown that the French have voted with the British on 95% of the motions contested, while the USA and the UK have coincided in only 65% of cases – statistics noted in Paris, but largely ignored in London.

Defence cooperation between the British and the Dutch is of long standing.  The UK has assisted Nordic countries in developing shared standing forces, and has worked with the Baltic states and their armed forces.  The gap between practice and rhetoric has become wide; much of this activity has scarcely been reported in the British press or noted by Parliament.

Both sides of what President Kennedy defined as ‘the Atlantic Community’ over 50 years ago have been transformed in the 25 years since the end of the Cold War. The internal political balance of the United States had already shifted west and south by the end of the 1980s; continuing immigration from the Hispanic south and from East and South Asia has long since ended the old dominance of the Anglo-Saxon Protestant Atlantic seaboard.  European students are outnumbered in American universities by Asians, and American students in British and continental European universities are outnumbered by Chinese.  The run-down of US forces in Europe that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union has reduced the familiarity of senior officers with European politics, strategy and culture.  Supreme Commander, Allied Forces Europe is no longer the most important overseas command.  The myth of the Anglosphere which attracts the more intellectual of Britain’s Eurosceptics relates to the USA of two generations ago, or more.  It is as little help in coming to terms with current needs as appeals by European elites for their younger citizens to recall the horrors and privations their grandparents suffered in the Second World War.

Europe has also reoriented, east and south.   Eleven former socialist states are now part of the European Union, with Poland becoming one of its major players.  Germany is no longer the eastern frontier of the West; it has re-emerged as Europe’s central economic power.  The elder President Bush responded to the new centrality of united Germany, on taking office, by making his first Presidential visit to Bonn, rather than to London.  By doing so he also distanced himself from the mutual admiration and second-world-war nostalgia which had marked the Reagan –Thatcher relationship.  The slight was deeply felt in London at the time, though the implication that closeness to Washington in a post-cold war world necessitated greater closeness to Bonn was not fully understood.   Both France and Germany hoped that the Labour government which came into office in 1997 would play a much more active part in shaping this larger institutionalised Europe.  But after brief engagement with initiatives on European foreign policy and defence cooperation, Tony Blair turned back to the pursuit of a special relationship with Washington.  His redefinition of Britain’s role between Europe and the United States as a ‘bridge’, linking continental Europe to the United States, implied the same semi-detached relationship with the continent that Churchill had envisaged in the 1940s and early 1950s: preferring the hopes of privileged but junior partnership with the United States to extending the Franco-German relationship, round which the EU had been built, into a triangular pattern of shared leadership for the European region.

Margaret Thatcher had failed to handle the reunification of Germany well; President Mitterand at least managed to shift position when he realised it could not be stopped.  Neither she nor her advisers understood that the push for closer union, including monetary union, was driven by French and other efforts to contain united Germany, and German fears that without closer integration its politicians would have to accept the burden of continental leadership.  Political elites across the continent pushed projects for further integration in the 1990s further than their domestic publics would accept; the Maastricht Treaty was rejected by the Danish electorate, the Nice Treaty by the Irish, and the Constitutional Treaty by both Dutch and French.  The delicate compromises negotiated through successive treaty changes reflected the gap between elite preoccupations and declining public acceptance of further integration in the richer countries of Western Europe: the resulting weaknesses in the structures of monetary union have been exposed by the global financial crisis and its aftermath.

One of the paradoxes of the conventional wisdom in London is that the EU is mostly discussed as an external entity, over which the UK has little influence: not acknowledging that the achievement of the Single Market, the successful transformation and accession of the former socialist states, and the emphasis on subsidiarity and deregulation which has emerged in recent years, all owe much to British participation, nor that intermittent engagement from the UK has contributed to the weakness of multilateral leadership.

The current mood of detachment from the continent within Britain is reinforced by the narrative of our dynamic and deregulated economy soaring ahead of a stagnant and unstable Eurozone.  That is, of course, a crude over-simplification; but the British economy is at present growing faster than its continental counterparts, if still running a gaping trade deficit.  For free marketeers in the Conservative Party and right-wing London think tanks, this reinforces their belief that Britain shares an ideology of open markets and economic dynamism with the United States which divides it from the ordo-liberalism and social democracy of the continent.  Close ties between Republican thinkers and think-tanks in the USA and their counterparts in London carry this message back and forth across the Atlantic.  Anglo-Saxon economics may be anathema to French socialists; it is an article of faith for British Conservatives.

But Britain is not alone in the confusion of its foreign policy debate.  Britain still stands out from its European partners in its contribution to extra-European order. Washington criticises Britain for its shrinking defence expenditure.  But Britain spends more than any continental European country, and spends in addition far more on aid for international development than France or Germany, in spite of Germany’s fiscal strength and long-term external surplus.  If Britain’s international ambitions are retreating, then those of most of its European partners are retreating ahead of it.  The latest Pew Survey of European opinion suggests that European publics still look to the USA to defend them in case of need, but are reluctant themselves to address potential external threats or should more burdens in meeting them.

What Relationship for the future?

Confusion within the British political elite about its foreign policy priorities and international obligations may be deeper than that within the French elite and public, or their German, Italian and Spanish counterparts.  Nevertheless a loss of public trust in established elites, and scepticism about international engagement, constrain political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. We have all lost much of the emotional glue – of shared memory and myth – that held the Atlantic community together.  Our younger generation do not remember the Cold War, let alone the destruction of 1939-1945, the American role in reconstructing a prosperous and democratic Western Europe and securing it from the perceived threat of Soviet expansion.  They take for granted their ability to travel from Calais to Constanta, from Venice to Vilnius, without thanking the European Union for creating this single European space.  Fewer young Europeans, including young British, instinctively admire the United States: the invasion and botched occupation of Iraq, the horrors of Guantanamo, revelations of US spying on European governments and publics, the image of American multi-nationals as tax-avoiding predators, have all damaged America’s prestige.    The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership has attracted limited public enthusiasm across Europe, and a good deal of popular suspicion.  The rising tide of immigration from poorer and more dangerous countries to the east and south has strengthen nationalism, and fuelled elements of xenophobia, in other states as well as in Britain.

There is no shared clear and present danger, to hold governments and publics on both sides of the Atlantic together.  Russia threatens Ukraine, but is seen by few – at least in Western Europe – as an existential threat to Europe’s peacefully-established order.  Conflict and disorder across the Middle East preoccupy both the United States and Europe, but assumptions and interests diverge.  In spite of the national trauma of 9/11, developments in the Arab world impact on Europe far more directly than on the distant United States, in flows of refugees and alienation within Europe’s much larger Muslim population.  The United States is focused on China’s ambitions and the geopolitics of East Asia, while European governments pursue Chinese markets and investment.  On climate change, which the 2010 UK Strategic Defence and Security Review identified as a major long-term threat, the divergence between European political and public concern and American scepticism is wide.  No European country has a proportion of climate change deniers in its Parliament comparable to the Republicans in the US Congress.

The future of Britain’s relationship with the USA must therefore be seen in the context of the uncertain future of overall transatlantic relations. The public mood in Britain does not differ from that in many of its continental neighbours – except in two respects.  First, a significant part of the political establishment shares the popular discontent with Europeanization, in contrast to Germany, France, Spain and the Netherlands, where the major parties and intellectual elites have largely held to the established consensus.  Second, the public does not resent American intrusion into British life in the way that many across the English Channel now do.  American takeovers of UK companies arouse little comment; American air and intelligence bases on British soil attract only a fringe of protest.  It is a peculiarity of the British debate that continental Europe is seen as the existential threat to British sovereignty, while the spread of overseas ownership across the British economy, and across fashionable London and England’s choicest countryside, by Russian oligarchs and billionaires from the Arab Gulf monarchies, Singapore and China as well as by Americans, arouses little concern.   In France, resentment at globalization has often been expressed as resentment at the United States.  In Britain, the same resentment is focussed on Brussels.  Even resentment against immigration has become focussed on Poles, Slovaks and Romanians from within the EU, in spite of the evidence that net immigration from outside the EU is higher than immigration from all the 27 other EU members.

There is no future for the sort of special relationship that some British Eurosceptics dream of.  The British public would not support the increase in defence expenditure needed to regain the confidence of the Pentagon; nor would the public support the expeditionary wars that might entail.  Washington is far less oriented towards any part of Europe than during the cold war – including Britain.  The personal ties have weakened; Bill Clinton may have been the last US President to have spent part of his youth in Britain.  The settled American preference for the United Kingdom to act as a leading partner within an institutionalized Europe, in close cooperation with France, Germany and others, has not altered since the Eisenhower Administration.  But emotion and nostalgia drive the Eurosceptic camp: powerful forces in politics, almost immune to evidence.

The Conservatives in the 2010 Coalition Agreement insisted on initiating an extensive study of the balance of legal competences in different policy fields between the UK and the EU, inviting evidence from a wide range of domestic interests.  When the 32 reports, produced over two years, concluded that the current balance suited British economic relatively well, the Eurosceptic press and right-wing denounced the foreign secretary and the officials who had managed it, and took no notice of the evidence submitted or the conclusions reached.  The pretence is maintained that the terms of a renegotiation will decide the outcome of the planned referendum, but the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party and their allies in the UK Independence Party are determined to leave, without worrying about the detail or presenting any reasoned alternative to continuing UK membership.  A failed renegotiation followed by a referendum vote to leave the EU carries with it additional risks: that the underlying English nationalism that drives antagonism to the continent will break the union between England and Scotland, and jeopardise the reconciliation between northern and southern Ireland.

A sustained relationship between the UK and the US, through the new British government and the next US Presidency, can be built only on the basis that Britain acts as one of the United States’ major European partners; not as a special relationship separate from America’s other relationships with Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the European region as a whole.  The transatlantic agenda we have to address does not look too different from London than from Paris, Berlin or Rome.  All European governments want to keep the United States engaged in the security of the European region, including relations with Russia, the southern Mediterranean countries and the Near East.  All want to maintain an open institutionalized international order, in the face of rising states which do not share our democratic and liberal values but which benefit from the rules we have laid down.  We differ about the details of those rules, about the terms and conditions for a more open transatlantic market, about how to handle the rise of China and the disruptive impact of authoritarian states, but we share the underlying liberal assumptions round which the post-1945 international order was built.

Our problem is that this is an elite agenda, remote from the understanding or preoccupations of our ageing, insecure and mistrustful populations.  And it is a rational agenda, without the emotional underpinning which supported the Atlantic Community, in which Western Europe looked to North America and North America cherished its European ties. Grand gestures to redefine international partnerships – the Marshall Plan of 1947, the Kennedy Grand Design of 1962 – are easier to make when political leaders command public trust and publics respond positively to the emotional cues they offer.

We must now struggle to redefine a transatlantic relationship, within which the UK and other European countries play shared parts.  But have any of our leaders the credibility, and the vision, to persuade both the elites and the publics of countries on both sides of the Atlantic to accept the narrative of partnership and shared values which they might offer?

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