Less Special Than You Think


British (Scottish?) historian Niall Ferguson, late of Oxford University and now a starting pitcher at Harvard, has penned a fascinating post mortem of the "special relationship" between Britain and the United States in London's The Spectator.

With the Iraq war as the backdrop, Ferguson wonders:

But now consider the special relationship from a British standpoint. What exactly have we gained or do we stand to gain -- besides applause in Washington and opprobrium everywhere else -- from our uncritical support of the Bush administration's Middle Eastern policy? After all, as Donald Rumsfeld so tactlessly noted, they could easily have got rid of Saddam without us.

The long and the short of it is "not much", Ferguson answers, with the only thing sustaining the bond today the shared religious values of Tony Blair and George W. Bush.

As he has made clear repeatedly, and most obviously in his speech to the Labour party conference in October 2001, Mr Blair relishes the American penchant to inject morality into foreign policy. Indeed, to him, war has become an instrument not of policy but of morality--a weapon to be used against wicked dictators in the name of 'freedom' and 'humanity'. When he talks in these terms, he can sometimes sound like an Anglicised Woodrow Wilson. But on closer inspection, Blair's foreign policy has its roots in Gladstone's idiosyncratic blend of High Church exaltation and evangelical fervour. It is, of course, precisely this that has enabled the Prime Minister to connect so successfully with two such different American presidents. For practically the only thing Bill Clinton and George Bush have in common is their Christianity.

Donald Rumsfeld once said that Americans don't 'do' empire, rather as Alastair Campbell once said that Downing Street didn't 'do' God. Yet Mr Bush's tacit imperialism--so much more resolute than that of his predecessor--has found its staunchest support in Mr Blair's private faith. On they march, these two Christian soldiers, each with a Bible in one hand and a bazooka in the other.

While one might want to differentiate Bush's and Clinton's brands of Christianity a trifle more forcefully, the moral of Ferguson's tale is that the relationship is only really sustained by the two leaders, but also by political, academic and business elites in both countries that hardly reflect the mass of their populations.

All this suggests that Tony Blair's devout Atlanticism may actually represent the special relationship's last gasp. For a strategic partnership needs more to sustain it than an affinity between the principals and the self-interest of a few professional elites. It requires a congruence of national interests. It also needs some convergence of popular attitudes. By both those criteria, the Anglo-American alliance is surely living on borrowed time.

True, but Ferguson downplays a factor, and it's not the perverse American fascination with Winston Churchill. Even as he notes that popular attitudes in Britain are moving far more toward Europe than America, there are some elite interests that perhaps can make for a more durable relationship than the last quote suggests: Britain can continue to cash in politically on its role as exalted middleman between the U.S. and Europe--a sort of good cop to America's bad. The great revolution in Europe is that it threatens to turn hitherto exclusive European powers increasingly into "just one of the boys." Britain can, occasionally and for a limited time, delay that thanks to the myth of the "special relationship", can it not?