The Special Relationship, Then and Now

FROM THE FALKLANDS TO IRAQ

On September 11, 2001, just hours after the collapse of the World Trade Center, British Prime Minister Tony Blair pledged his solidarity with the United States. "Here in the United Kingdom," he said, "we stand shoulder to shoulder with our American friends in this hour of tragedy, and we, like them, will not rest until this evil is driven from our world."

That commitment was wholly in line with a long-established principle of British foreign policy: the United Kingdom should nurture a special relationship with the United States in the hope of shaping the exercise of U.S. power. In Washington, the idea may never have been taken too seriously, but nor did U.S. officials actively discourage it. If anything, in recent years, this special relationship has enjoyed something of a revival, with President George W. Bush apparently relieved to have at least one reliable friend.

But it was also a commitment that many believe has cost Blair dearly. Unlike other heads of government who framed their promises more carefully, Blair loyally followed Bush into Afghanistan and then into an unpopular and, as it turns out, troubled campaign in Iraq. He is now regularly portrayed as "Bush's poodle" for, according to the charges, slavishly following reckless U.S. policies and proving unable or unwilling to use his political capital to moderate this recklessness. The former British ambassador to Washington recently lamented that Blair had even failed to insist on proper preparations for the occupation of Iraq. Other critics have gone so far as to unfavorably compare Blair's record with that of Harold Wilson, who, although rarely remembered very favorably as prime minister, at least resisted President Lyndon Johnson's requests that British troops join U.S. Forces in Vietnam.

This episode plays to a recurrent argument in the contemporary British and European debate over world affairs: that the primary challenge of foreign policy is to find ways of restraining a United States that is forever seeking to solve complex international problems through the use of military force in places and in forms that are wholly inappropriate. That charge has been matched by American derision over Europe's alleged propensity to turn wimpish in the face of international threats: in this caricatured version, Americans are said to be from Mars, Europeans from Venus.

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