Less Special Than You Think

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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?

NEXT: "There's nothing left of New York anymore"

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  1. Sorry, but I automatically discount just about anyone who talks about American imperialism.

    Call me naive, but America simply is not in the business of creating colonial dependencies or otherwise creating an “empire” in any meaningful sense of the word. At worst, we have a few vestigial island colonies, and have passed up repeated opportunities to create a real empire over the past decades. The last real empire was the Soviet Union. Compare and contrast the Eastern bloc and USSR with NATO, and you will see just how un-imperial the US is.

    Arguments to the contrary are typically rooted in last-gasp Marxism that ignores all historical definitions of empire to prattle on about “cultural” or “commercial” imperialism. Anyone who calls the current Iraqi situation an exercise in “empire-building” is an idiot.

    IMHO.

  2. The British will always have a special relationship with the US because they can understand what’s happening in our cool movies, and more easily dream about living here since they can speak the language and have a fairly similar culture. On the other hand, they have a strong and distinct enough culture of their own to not be consumed by bizarre petty jealousy, and a need to differentiate themselves (*Ahem* Canada.)

  3. Canada has a strong and distinct culture.

    It’s just that it’s French, so it’s kind of a rock/hard place situation.

    So, England has always defined its identity in opposition to continental Europe. Now, it finds itself in a position where it has to join the EU and merge with those countries, at the risk of being shut out of the commercial advantages.

    What if the US invited England to join NAFTA? That way, they wouldn’t have to merge with the continent and lose their distinct, but still enjoy the benefits of being in a barrier-lowering block. Is this an insane idea?

  4. I think it actually makes perfect sense for Brits to wonder if they really got a good deal from invading Iraq. This isn’t a criticism of the war (we’ve already debated that one ad nauseum), but simply an observation on the “free rider problem.”

    For the sake of argument, I’ll put aside all of my objections to the Iraq war. Let’s say it made or will make the world a safer place, curtailed terrorism, advanced the cause of liberty in the Middle East, etc. etc.

    Now, it was pretty clear that the US was going to do this one way or another. Sure, the administration was hoping for some show of international support, but I’m pretty sure that we would have done it even without England.

    The benefits of removing a dictator, curtailing WMD proliferation, ending Iraqi sponsorship of terrorism, draining the swamp and transforming a region, etc. etc. will accrue to the entire world. It’s not like the invasion of Iraq would cause terrorists to focus all of their energy on France from now on and ignore the US.

    The costs, measured in blood, treasure, and arguably diplomatic fallout and terrrorist blow-back, will only accrue to those who participate.

    So wouldn’t it make perfect sense for a Brit to conclude that this “special relationship” is a raw deal? They pay the price for the invasion of Iraq while only accruing the same benefits as the rest of the world.

    So, we have a problem here: There’s little incentive for other countries to help us or join us in our foreign interventions if we’re determined to go it alone. In fact, there’s an incentive for them to loudly oppose our interventions, so that they don’t suffer any of the possible blow-back that will come to those who supported it.

    And before somebody tries to argue with me over whether blow-back is a valid reason to refrain from intervening: The significance of blow-back depends on whether you’re the country that’s going to do it no matter what, or the country choosing between joining the effort vs. being a free rider. The country that’s bound and determined to do something has presumably determined that the benefits outweigh the blow-back. Fair enough. However, a country deciding whether or not to join the coalition is going to accrue certain benefits no matter what, but blow-back will only come their way if they join the effort.

  5. Does anyone else find it amusing that Dean is troubled by Ferguson’s use of the term “American imperialism” and suggests that he’s a Marxist when in fact Ferguson writes pro-colonialism books/articles and was one of the biggest cheerleaders for the idea of “re-making” the Middle East back in 2002?

    Read about his ideas here: http://archive.salon.com/books/feature/2003/04/17/ferguson/index_np.html (and yes, you need to watch a web ad)

  6. British support of the US will be paid back in trade by people who remember who helped us when we needed it. When I look at the shelves and see British, German, and French products (OK, I admit, beverages)…easy choice.

  7. So slacker, what about all that sticky black stuff you buy from the Saudis? Are you even making an effort to give them a little less $$$?

  8. bigbigslacker-

    You may be punishing the Germans and French, but are enough other people doing it to make a difference?

    Incidentally, the reasons that I outlined above also make me skeptical of the notion that John Kerry will be significantly better at getting international support for US military operations. He might try a little harder at it, and he might just sweet talk one or two more countries into sending some sort of token force, but that’s about it. If the operation is controversial then it won’t be in their interests to join us in something that we’re already committed to, so they’ll do the rational thing and stay out. They’ll get the benefits of a world with one less dictator (we can debate the type and magnitude of those benefits, of course) but they won’t pay any of the costs.

    Classic free rider problem.

  9. thoreau, your reasoning assumes that Kerry will pursue the missin exactly the same way as Bush, with all variables remaining exactly the same except the height, intelligence, and sophistication of the president.

    In fact, Kerry will have the advantage of not having to defend what came before the next presidential term, and of being able to change course when such a change is needed without risking domestic political damage.

    Kerry will have not only personal advantages over Bush in trying to bring in more help, but also structural ones.

  10. So wouldn’t it make perfect sense for a Brit to conclude that this “special relationship” is a raw deal? They pay the price for the invasion of Iraq while only accruing the same benefits as the rest of the world

    Does the UK enjoy no benefits beyond those enjoyed by the rest of the world? I can’t see America going to war to defend France or Germany from attackers. I think we’d fulfill our NATO obligations the same way that France and Germany did during the Afghanistan war — send a few token troops and complain about not being in charge. But the UK, on the other hand, is a nation we would fight to defend. Americans, generally speaking, like the British.

    So, we have a problem here: There’s little incentive for other countries to help us or join us in our foreign interventions if we’re determined to go it alone

    That’s not quite correct: there is little incentive for other countries to help us because we’re *able* to go it alone. We’re never “determined” to go it alone; we’d always like to have allies. But since we don’t really need them, we have no reason to make significant concessions to earn their support.

  11. Maybe I read Samizdata.net a bit too much, but it seems that the UK is already kinda stuck in the middle. I don’t know if they could really pull back from the US as much as Ferguson is suggesting, mainly because I don’t know if they really want to embrace the EU that much (and conversely, does the EU really want to embrace the UK, or actually desire to throttle it?). Personally, I think the UK’s best move is to stay in that middleman spot, uncomfortable as it may be, because more severance with either side loses an extreme amount of power. I think when push comes to shove, even though the citizens are feeling ‘more European’ than they are American, they’re still first and foremost British, and as such cannot totally commit to the EUrofication of their country. They don’t WANT to be Americans, but neither do they want to be Continentals. Breaking with either side will relegate them to such a status.

  12. Hmmmm… joe and thoreau floating ideas the National Review has been tallking about for years. Odd.

  13. I think Dan is on the right track here; the British have done us a favor, so now they have some chips they can cash in some time, be it Dan’s extreme example of some massive enemy attack, or some more minor crisis, like a border dispute or a UN vote or something.

  14. So slacker, what about all that sticky black stuff you buy from the Saudis? Are you even making an effort to give them a little less $$$?

    It’s not possible to give “less money” to an oil-producing state without physically forcing them to stop pumping oil. For what it’s worth, though, the Saudi share of US oil imports (11%) is significantly lower than its share of world oil production (26%).

    You may be punishing the Germans and French, but are enough other people doing it to make a difference?

    I don’t know about Germany, but American purchases of French wine were significantly lower last year, both overall and relative to other wines. American tourism in France also significantly declined.

  15. Joe, no I’m not making much of an effort. Like most enviro hypocrits, I drive a vehicle with an automatic transmission and air conditioning. Its a 4 cylinder, but only gets 20 mpg. I make the occasional pleasure trip by air, and have a 2-stroke dirt bike, ATV, and snowmobile. I also live too far from my job. I guess I am doing my part by graciously deciding to not live in, and heat and cool, a mansion…

    Thoureau, I did buy a bottle of German wine last weekend – Germans being less anti-American than people from the California Napa Valley area (just joking!). Had there been a bottle of wine from the UK (if there is such a thing – I’m no connoisseur) right next to it, I probably would have choose differently. I wouldn’t call that “punishing” one supplier – more like rewarding another. Otherwise we are “punishing” everyone we don’t buy from.
    Given the US is many times the population of the UK, it doesn’t take much for them to see a nice increase in their exports. I recall (but can’t readily support with links from a quick non-conlusive google) a recent article saying UK exports are up. Though I don’t think the story necessarily attributed the rise to support from U.S. consumers. I concede, I really don’t know anyone else in my personal life who has intentionally bought British as a result of their support for the U.S., but I do know people who have avoided all things French. (I’m not rabidly anti-French, but to the extent I read stories of them being anti-American it does make me think twice about giving them my money, particularly when a solid friend of the U.S. offers the same products)

  16. RC Dean,

    The flag waving we’ve seen in parts of the Republican Party is remarkably similar to the jingoism of British imperialism, and Britain wasn’t exactly an empire at the height of its imperialist phase.

    Maybe we’re mincing terms here, but, excluding cultural and economic imperialism, doesn’t imperialism mean exerting influence on another country’s politics?

    One would expect American imperialism, if indeed it exists, to expound Democracy, among other things, and to garner support from the public by claiming…

    …you really don’t see the similarities?

  17. “I can’t see America going to war to defend France or Germany from attackers.”

    WWII, maybe?

  18. Call me naive

    rc, you’re naive.

  19. one of the biggest cheerleaders for the idea of “re-making” the Middle East back in 2002?

    sr, i just read his “colossus” — and a greater advocate of american conquest you won’t find. he truly believes that the establishment of a directly-ruled enduring liberal american land empire — a second coming of the british, as it were — to supercede our existing imperial network of proxy states/military bases would be the best possible method of bringing prosperity to the developing world.

    however, he concedes straightly that americans lack the resolve to commit to great imperial projects — we’re a paper tiger, in other words — and moreover correctly points out the financial weakness and looming bankruptcy of the american system, built on debt as it is.

    i wonder, relating to his article here, if he hasn’t possibly missed a fundamentally important possibility: that britain itself is now de facto a province of the indirect american empire. i see he points out britain’s military dependency on the united states; but i think he might underestimate the depth of financial codependency of britain and america together. just a thought.

  20. I can’t see America going to war to defend France or Germany from attackers.

    dan, i think that obscenely europhobic jingoism. if we send the army to fucking useless bosnia, granada and somalia, we would surely send the whole kit and kaboodle to france.

  21. “correctly points out the financial weakness and looming bankruptcy of the american system, built on debt as it is.”

    It’d be possible to put some credence into ridiculous statements like this, if someone could point out exactly when, or nearly when, the collapse was going to happen. I actually respect the Peak Oil nuts for having a timeline at least. Although, after their assininty is falsified, I get the feeling they won’t give up the ship.

  22. possible to put some credence into ridiculous statements like this, if someone could point out exactly when, or nearly when, the collapse was going to happen.

    jdm, read ferguson’s book. lays it out fairly clearly in non-technical terms.

    of course, no one has the crystal ball — the timing of the collapse is likely to surprise everyone, as the nasdaq collapse did. such is the way of complex systems. but one needs only to observe that the united states has public and private outstanding debts in excess of 400% of gdp and is enjoying 40-year-low interest rates to accumulate yet more debt — not to mention our insane government promises for social program outlays like medicare — to know that the worm will eventually turn and spark a confidence crisis like so many others in history.

  23. gaius, I wouldn’t attribute my region’s record of economic success and innovation to our liberal government policies – we had the former centuries before the latter.

    I’m just pointing out that the chicken little prognostications of conservatives have failed to hold up, we’re still an economic and technological leader (as opposed to libertarian paradises like Mississippi, who will see their anti-labor, anti-environment policies pay off any day now), and we spread the wealth around a lot better to boot.

  24. ooh, joe smacked down the regional rivalry card. boo-yah!

    So, you red-staters just gonna take that like that?

  25. Why compare Massachusetts to Mississippi? A better comparison of capitalism versus collectivism would be North Korea versus South Korea. Ready when you are Dear Leader Joe.

  26. …a glib statement that Great Britain is the only country other than the U.S. that can field a division somewhere on the plant strikes me as without basis.

    Did anyone ever state that?

    Oh wait, you’re implying something I did not state; here is my original statement:

    Indeed, few countries in Europe aside from France could have mounted the sort of invasion that Britain has during GWII.

  27. Britain’s relationship wasn’t so special that it got Britain involved in Viet Nam.

  28. Certainly, if the US piles on debt forever, the economy will eventually collapse, and it is possible that we are beyond the tipping point, but no one can say that we have certainly passed it. It’s just too complex a question. And there are lots of reasons to think the economy can carry more debt now than previously.

    Now if you assume that the government is going to simply try to pay off its Medicare and Social Security “debts,” collapse is more likely, but that is just not going to happen.

  29. Our “special relationship” with Britain is a common language (although sometimes you have to pay close attention). Try ordering a meal in France or Germany sometime – you’ll get the drift.

    And, JDM, our economy will blow when the oil blows. Serious, serious problems in 20 years, total meltdown in 50. Rural China will be our economic model.

  30. I would just like to note that in the first Bourne movie, Jason Bourne had a residence in Paris.

    That’s all :->

  31. “…a glib statement that Great Britain is the only country other than the U.S. that can field a division somewhere on the plant strikes me as without basis.

    Did anyone ever state that?”

    joe did, not JB. It is naval assets that get you power projection. Fielding a division, supplying them, and getting air dominance can’t be done by very many people in the world except us and Britain. Two divisions that are capable of pressing a ground war away from the coast line, that is pretty much just the US.

    Most EU forces are designed to be static lines that defend their own borders. The US has long been criticized for our strategic emphasis on power projection. We always get world police this and hegemony that.

    I think I just agreed with joe.

  32. Gadfly,

    Are you aware of nuclear power? Answer the following:

    When we start to run out of oil will people
    a) choose to live like Okies
    b) stop listening to smelly hippies

  33. “I can’t see America going to war to defend France or Germany from attackers.”

    I can’t see France or Germany being attacked. What country would attack France or Germany?

  34. I can’t see France or Germany being attacked. What country would attack France or Germany?

    Well, historically, the answer is … France or Germany.

  35. Jesse Walker,

    Or Spain or England (in the case of France).

  36. Thank you, JL, I chose the word “projecting” very carefully.

    Yes, Jose, there are many different ways to measure military capacity. Those which completely fail to account for naval and air power, however, are completely worthless.

    Quick, which is the greater power – India or Germany? Brazil or France?

  37. Now if you assume that the government is going to simply try to pay off its Medicare and Social Security “debts,” collapse is more likely, but that is just not going to happen.

    much more likely that they’ll eventually devalue the currency by printing, as most governments do to shirk high debt loads. the problem with that, of course, is the high percentage of foreign debt holders who would be compelled to sell by a falling dollar — feeding a spiral of dollar devaluation and rising rates that will be all but impossible to control.

    what i do not expect to happen would be austerity, no matter how badly we need it. the people don’t want it or believe they need it anymore; and the pols are beholden to the mob. it is this unfortunate state of affairs that gives me little reason for hope, and also points out the critical (and usually mortal) weakness of democracy as once stated by alexander tytler.

  38. Gonna float this one for alla yous

    Jason Bourne = Gary Gunnels = Jean Bart = Croesus?

  39. we’re still an economic and technological leader (as opposed to libertarian paradises like Mississippi

    Mississippi… a “libertarian paradise”? What amusing hallucinations you must have.

    I’m wondering why you didn’t pick a more obvious example of a libertarian state, such as Colorado. My guess is that the fact that Colorado’s per-capita GDP is growing faster than that of any other state in the nation probably had something to do with it.

  40. “I can’t see America going to war to defend France or Germany from attackers.”

    I can’t see France or Germany being attacked. What country would attack France or Germany?

    There are no nations that seem likely to attack them today. In the long term, however, it is reasonable to worry about Russia, which is an economic basket case, has all but abandoned democratic government, and seems to be suffering from a severe case of “empire nostalgia”.

    In the short term, a “9/11”-style terrorist attack on France isn’t out of the question either.

  41. Jean Bart admitted to being Croesus a couple years ago.

  42. Dan,

    They already tried that in 1994. France also has some special air force units designed to thwart such an attack, and they were in place prior to 9/11. About six months or more ago an airliner lost voice communications half an hour from for Paris; the French air force scrambled and was on the plane in about five minutes.

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