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.

These views reflect the current dispute over Iraq. But it would be unwise to generalize from them and draw conclusions about how particular countries are likely to act in the next crisis. A look back over recent decades reveals that the United States is by no means always the most ready to resort to armed force. The recently published Human Security Report, a study of modern conflict financed in part by the Canadian government, contains a table ranking countries according to their participation in international wars since 1946. The United Kingdom tops the list with 21 instances, followed by France (19) and the United States (16). Many of the British and French entries refer to attempts to hold on to or stabilize their former colonies (while the British were staying out of Vietnam, they were heavily engaged in Malaysia). But colonialism is only part of the story. Since the end of the Cold War, the United Kingdom and France have been regularly involved in humanitarian interventions. The war in Iraq was the fifth military operation Blair has authorized, after air strikes against Iraq in 1998 and operations in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and Afghanistan. This is not to mention the small contingent the British sent to East Timor.

From the British perspective, the problem with Washington since World War II has been not so much its predilection for using military force as a first resort as its hesitation and uncertainty when going to war. Both Blair and his predecessor, John Major, were frustrated by President Bill Clinton's reluctance to put U.S. troops in harm's way in Bosnia and then Kosovo. In 1956, it was the United States—standing up for the principles of international law and using its economic muscle to restrain foolish adventurism—that prevented the United Kingdom and France from seeing through the reoccupation of the Suez Canal after Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized it. The United States' objection to the use of force in this case undermined not only the British position in the Middle East, but also British self-confidence; it was taken as a warning of the speed with which the United Kingdom could find itself isolated. After Suez, the British resolved never to get out of step with U.S. foreign policy again. This was the point at which British governments began to be obsessed with the idea of a special relationship. It was apparent that the United Kingdom could not expect to play a major role in the world either independently of or in opposition to the United States. Its future strategy would be to trade loyalty for privileged access to Washington's foreign-policy making.

A case that even more starkly illustrates the practical complexities of attitudes to the use of force came a quarter century later, with the Falklands War of 1982, between the United Kingdom and Argentina. The British government—this time on the right side of international law—once again felt like it was being undermined by constant American pressure to act with restraint and offer concessions to the aggressors.

The early 1980s was a time when, according to most of the European press, the United States was led by an intellectually challenged B-movie actor who was hostile to diplomacy and looking for an excuse to fight a nuclear war for which he was actively preparing. The only European leader in tune with President Ronald Reagan was British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. So close was their political relationship that when Argentina seized the Falkland Islands—British sovereign territory—in 1982, Thatcher assumed that she would have unhesitating and unqualified U.S. support in getting them back. She was disappointed. Although the Reagan administration was viewed as full of superhawks, it urged its British ally to take a dovish approach and tried to broker a deal between the aggressor and the aggrieved. The incident serves as a reminder that the policies of major powers reflect a calculation of interests and an analysis of the dynamics of conflict—and that the policies adopted by the United States are a product of shifting power balances within a particular administration as much as a product of any built-in ideological disposition.

As the official British historian of the Falklands campaign, I have had access to all the British papers on the conflict. These papers reveal the extent of the British government's frustration with the Reagan administration's efforts to find a compromise solution that, in British eyes, would have rewarded Argentina for its aggression. This episode is revealing not only because it challenges common stereotypes about U.S. Foreign-policy making, but also because it illustrates the difficulties that even close allies face when contemplating the use of armed force.


The Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa described the Falklands War as akin to "two bald men arguing over a comb." Known in Spanish as the Malvinas, the islands, located 250 miles off the Argentine coast, were hardly a vital strategic asset. The population was small, less than 2,000, and declining.

The Argentine government had long complained that the British had illegally seized the Falklands in 1833 and had argued for their return in the name of territorial integrity. The British government would have been prepared to hand them over were it not for promises that it would not do so without the islanders' consent, a stance it stuck to in the name of self-determination. British diplomacy was thus caught between persuading the islanders that London would not renege on this pledge and convincing Buenos Aires that it was nonetheless worth negotiating over the Falklands.

By early 1982, the negotiations had ground to a halt. In March, an incident involving a landing by Argentine scrap-metal merchants on the island of South Georgia (which was administered from the Falklands, although it is some 800 miles away) triggered a crisis that led to the invasion of the Falklands by Argentina. The Argentine junta had been planning to force the issue of the islands' sovereignty later in the year, prior to the 150th anniversary of their loss. When the British talked tough about the landing on South Georgia, the junta began to fear that the incident would be used by the British as a pretext to reinforce their military presence in the South Atlantic. Accordingly, when Argentina invaded the Falklands on April 2, it did so effectively as an act of preemption. By that point, at issue was no longer just what Reagan called "that little ice-cold bunch of land down there," but also international reputation and the principles of nonaggression, self-determination, and loyalty among allies.

At first, U.S. officials (along with many others) found it hard to take these strange events seriously. When they did, they found that their natural sympathy for the United Kingdom was qualified by the effort they had devoted to cultivating the Argentine military government as a vital supporter of the administration's anticommunist campaigns in Central America. This view was strongly held by Jeane Kirkpatrick, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, and Thomas Enders, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs.

Many in Washington thus argued vigorously for an "evenhanded" approach. They warned that unqualified U.S. support for the British would solidify the hemispheric suspicion that when it came to the crunch the United States would always support Europeans rather than its closest neighbors. The Europeanists in the State Department and the Pentagon could not imagine that the United States would not support a NATO ally in these circumstances (and were sensitive to the legacy of Suez), but Secretary of State Alexander Haig, although aware of these conflicting pressures, viewed every situation through a Cold War framework. He feared that if the United States turned against Argentina, there would be opportunities for "Soviet mischief-making, either directly, or through their Cuban proxies, in Argentina." Added to this was his conviction that because of its good relations with both countries, the United States was uniquely placed to negotiate a political settlement. Playing mediator between Argentina and the United Kingdom would at the very least provide Washington with an excuse for not taking sides immediately.

Haig engaged in shuttle diplomacy between London and Buenos Aires for much of April. "Once engagement starts," Haig warned Thatcher at the start of his back-and-forth, "it will become an increasingly difficult burden to protect principle." By then, the Americans were uncertain that the British could actually win the battle for the islands. But the Argentines rejected proposals for a settlement, and at that point Washington officially came down on the United Kingdom's side. Still, Haig tried to push forward with compromise solutions, and Reagan observed that a "strictly military outcome cannot endure over time." Even after the British had landed forces on the Falklands and both sides had taken severe casualties, Washington argued that it was best to end the conflict through negotiations rather than through a decisive victory by one side. This insistence continued through Argentina's surrender and the restoration of British administration.

British concern about the United States' stance stemmed from three sources. Most basic was the shocking discovery that the Americans found it difficult to choose between a long-standing democratic ally and a military dictatorship of recent acquaintance. "It is impossible to be neutral between unprovoked aggression and people who just wished to live their lives in their old way," Thatcher told Haig. British officials repeatedly asked their American counterparts about how they would react if Cuba occupied Puerto Rico. Whenever doubts were cast about whether it was worth making a great sacrifice, to quote Haig again, "for a thousand sheepherders," London drew attention to Washington's recent outrage over 52 American hostages in Tehran.

An even greater source of worry was that the Americans would follow the logic of their position to the point of preventing the United Kingdom from taking military action and of demanding a diplomatic settlement that would, in British eyes, reward aggression and lead to the transfer of the Falklands to Argentina. Much on this score depended on the balance of power within the Reagan administration, for while the president and Haig were trying to find a compromise solution, the intelligence agencies and the Pentagon were supporting the British to the full. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger (to whom Queen Elizabeth II awarded an honorary knighthood after the conflict), ignoring both military warnings that the odds were against a British victory and diplomatic advice that the United States should remain impartial, ordered that London's requests for all forms of support short of actual participation in military action "should be granted immediately." U.S. facilities on the British-owned Ascension Island, a vital link in the United Kingdom's logistics chain, were made available, along with fuel supplies and essential intelligence.

When the Pentagon's support was exposed on April 14, Haig tried to reassure the Argentines of U.S. impartiality. He read Thatcher a statement explaining that the United States would henceforth be unable to give support that went "beyond customary patterns of cooperation." That would mean restrictions on the use of U.S. facilities on Ascension. Thatcher was furious at being placed "on an equal footing with the Junta" and warned of a growing feeling in the United Kingdom that the United States was doing less for the British than they deserved.

Even more damaging was an episode that occurred a week later, when the British decided to retake the island of South Georgia, where the Argentines had left only a small garrison. The British government was persuaded by its Foreign Office to alert Haig in advance. After Sir Nico Henderson, the British ambassador to Washington, had done so, Haig reported back that he must give advance warning to Buenos Aires, although it was too late for the Argentines to act on it, lest he be accused by the Argentines of collusion. In fact, and despite promising not to tell them after Henderson had expressed horror at the suggestion, Haig had already alerted the Argentines to the possibility of British action to retake South Georgia—as part of his effort to warn them of the possible consequences of their intransigence. The British subsequently started holding back on what they told Washington. "It is a frightening thing," observed British Defense Secretary Sir John Nott, "that our greatest ally is not wholly on our side."

London's third source of anxiety was the political analysis on which the U.S. stance was based, which reflected deep pessimism about the consequences of a British victory. According to this analysis, a British victory might cause the hemispheric security system to unravel, as not only Argentina but also an emotional Latin American public, acting in solidarity against this latest example of imperialist perfidy, would embrace the Soviet Union and Cuba. General Leopoldo Galtieri, the junta's leader, would be replaced by an anti-American Peronist. With communist help, a more radical Argentine government might foment low-level hostilities and keep the Falklands issue to the fore, ensuring that it would be extremely difficult to repair damaged relations. Hence the regular American suggestions to Thatcher, which she found perplexing, of the need for concessions to help "save Galtieri's face" and thereby keep him in power. Naturally, this was not Thatcher's highest priority. Haig remarked, "We did not sense that the British had sufficiently thought through that an Argentine-British military conflict might lead to the cementing of a Soviet-Argentine military relationship."

It was not only Washington that worried about the geopolitical shifts that would follow a war. Almost all governments friendly to the United Kingdom advised the same course: compromise in order to spare the Argentine junta from a humiliating defeat. For most governments, the main concern was to guard against a radicalized Argentina and an alienated Latin America. Although the junta did try to play on such fears, there was little evidence that they were valid. The Argentine officer class was imbued with anticommunist ideology and not inclined to switch its allegiances. Meanwhile, other Latin American countries hardly rushed to break diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom, despite their rhetorical support for Argentina's aspirations. In private, most Latin American governments deplored the junta's methods, and they knew that their own political and economic interests depended on maintaining good relations with the United States and the European Community. As it became clear that the British were going to win, they were not inclined to make futile gestures out of solidarity with a lost cause but instead began to distance themselves from the Argentines. Even Moscow was wary of getting too close to Buenos Aires, well aware of the junta's reputation among other leftist groups in Latin America. Third World support for Argentina was also minimal, a critical factor in determining Soviet foreign policy. The worst-case political analysis, which the Reagan administration used to extract concessions out of the United Kingdom, was at best overstated and in many respects wrong.

To be fair, the intelligence and materiel support that the United Kingdom received from the United States was vital, and Haig had worked hard to ensure that strong NATO support for the United Kingdom would continue. There was bound to be some attempt to reach a negotiated settlement, and it suited London that this attempt was spearheaded by Washington rather than the UN, which took over after the Haig effort had failed. Haig's shuttle diplomacy usefully filled the time while the British fleet was sailing to the South Atlantic and had the advantage of putting Argentina further in the wrong, as the junta was blamed for the failure of the attempted mediation. And it is unclear whether, as many in the United Kingdom argued then, immediate and whole-hearted U.S. support for the United Kingdom would have convinced Argentina of its diplomatic isolation and thereby persuaded it to withdraw quickly from the Falklands.

Even countries sympathetic to the United Kingdom's predicament argued that just as it was important to demonstrate that Argentina's attempt to resolve the dispute over the Falklands by force must fail, it was equally important to demonstrate the possibility of solving such disputes by peaceful means. As the conflict came to a close, London faced constant appeals for "magnanimity" (a word Thatcher came to loathe). By October, despite what the British had taken to be assurances to the contrary, Washington was working with the Argentines on a resolution in the UN General Assembly calling for the resumption of negotiations over the Falklands. The British considered the text of the proposed resolution hypocritical and were furious that the Reagan administration was still ignoring the wishes of its closest ally. After Reagan wrote to Thatcher explaining his position, she wrote back saying that her cabinet was "utterly dismayed" and that a vote for the resolution would be received with "utter incomprehension."


Despite the harsh words and mutual exasperation, the Falklands incident did not have a lasting effect on U.S.-British relations. Washington chose to admire the resolve displayed by the Thatcher government, and London preferred to recall the extraordinary materiel support provided by its U.S. ally in its time of need rather than the United States' suspect diplomacy. And so a key lesson to be drawn from this episode may be that basic international alignments and patterns of cooperation are extraordinarily resilient. Disputes between governments are different from rows within families; governments generally find it much easier to move on to the next issue. But by the same token, there are inherent limits to the extent to which a close personal relationship between political leaders, however warm, can compensate for powerful domestic drivers. Indeed, British influence over U.S. policy has been greatest when Washington's elite has already been divided.

Once historians get a chance to disentangle the decision-making and diplomacy that led to the 2003 Iraq war, they are likely to find more complex agendas than have so far been made public. This time around, it was Washington that was convinced that there was no credible diplomatic route and no middle way to resolve its differences with Baghdad: other countries were either with the United States or against it. If the British believed that they had a mediating role to play, it was not between Bush and Saddam Hussein but between the United States and its anxious European allies. This time, it was U.S. officials who were overly relaxed about public opinion in the region in question, assuming that the necessary adjustments would take place, and it was the British who were urging efforts to demonstrate some sensitivity to local concerns, in this case by addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The main difference between the Falklands War and the Iraq war is that whereas Thatcher was nervous about managing a dangerous international crisis without U.S. support, Bush was determined to keep control over the Iraq crisis and thought he could manage without British support, if necessary. Bush's conviction limited Blair's options, but it by no means turned Blair into a poodle. His approach to the "war on terror" has been wider and in many respects more ambitious than Bush's, as it has looked well beyond the elimination of al Qaeda to the need to address the collection of problems bound up with failed states, social cleavages, and the deadly quarrels that sustain and inspire jihadist groups. He can point to a record of muscular internationalism that would impress any neoconservative.

Blair was far from being an unwilling participant in overthrowing the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam in Iraq. In regard to Saddam, since becoming prime minister in 1997, Blair had acted on the assumption that the Iraqi regime was unrepentant and still up to no good, at least with regard to weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Nor is it the case that he has failed to exercise influence over the decisions of the Bush administration. Working with Secretary of State Colin Powell in August 2002, he persuaded Bush, against the wishes of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, to take the Iraq problem to the UN Security Council to give any action more legitimacy. And he persuaded Bush to take some initiative on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Unfortunately, the time was not ripe for a new Middle Eastern initiative, and taking the Iraq issue back to the UN Security Council backfired. Blair's insistence on obtaining a UN resolution giving Iraq a deadline to comply with weapons inspections was based on the assumption that Saddam did have something to hide; the idea was that he would either remain in blatant violation of the UN resolution by refusing to allow in inspectors or cave in and be exposed. Blair gave scant thought to the possibility that Saddam would cooperate sufficiently to buy himself time with the majority of UN member states or that once the inspectors got to work they would find little evidence of illicit activity.

The decision by French President Jacques Chirac to oppose war regardless of what the inspectors found put Blair's whole diplomatic strategy in jeopardy. As the American deadline for war loomed, Blair, in some desperation, tried to gain agreement on a compromise. But it was too late. In the end, he had to decide whether to support the French or the Americans—a decision he did not find difficult. Meanwhile, Washington's plans for war were changing daily, largely as a result of uncertainty about whether Turkey would allow its territory to be used as a launching pad for a ground attack. Blair expressed concern about the adequacy of U.S. planning for a postwar Iraq—but once the plans were under the Pentagon's control, there was little he could do.


The Falklands campaign cost 255 British lives and about three times as many Argentine lives. The British were only able to repossess the islands by taking great military risks. The postwar reconstruction of the Falklands was, however, relatively straightforward, although expensive. Despite all the dire warnings, it did not take long for British or U.S. relations with the rest of Latin America to recover, or for the Argentine junta to fall and be replaced by a democratic government. Thatcher's proven ability to keep her nerve in a conflict did wonders for her political reputation, and the Falkland Islands soon moved into a new era of security and prosperity.

The Iraq war, by contrast, went according to plan, but the postwar occupation and reconstruction have not. During the main combat operations in Iraq, 33 British soldiers were killed; by the end of 2005, almost twice that number had died fighting the insurgency. The incessant political violence in Iraq and the failure to find any stocks of WMD have cast a pall over Blair's premiership.

The Falklands and Iraq are thus two very different cases. But together they demonstrate that relations between close allies in times of crisis are likely to be more nuanced and complex than surface impressions suggest, and that facile assumptions about natural attitudes in the face of conflict lack historical foundation. Much depends on circumstances and personalities, as well as the interests at stake.

A final lesson is the importance of the underlying political analysis that is used to determine policy. The British gamble in the Falklands paid off not only because the military risks turned out to be manageable, but also because the political risks were well judged. London understood the need to reassure the international community that it was not being reckless and was interested in diplomatic solutions. Yet it never panicked over extravagant claims that old allies would abandon it as soon as the first shots were fired or that the episode would lead to Cold War reversals in Latin America. Washington's gamble in Iraq was far less successful, plagued by misplaced optimism regarding debate in the UN Security Council, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and, above all, the responsiveness of the Iraqi social and political systems to a foreign occupation.

The effect of all this has been to weaken Bush, Blair, and, by extension, the very idea of a special relationship. Yet in the end, if only because of the lack of credible alternatives, no prospective post-Blair British government will change course significantly and move away from the special relationship. After all, the problem with Iraq lay not in the special relationship itself; consultations between the allies were deep and genuine, and based on shared objectives, and the U.S. stance was by no means completely rigid. The problem lay in flawed analysis that led to a flawed policy.

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  • LAWRENCE D. FREEDMAN is Professor of War Studies at King's College, London. His two-volume Official History of the Falklands Campaign was published in 2005.
  • More By Lawrence D. Freedman