Accusations of political fecklessness are nothing new for British Prime Minister David Cameron. But since failing to receive parliament’s backing for an intervention in Syria, Cameron has also had to face an accusation of more historic import -- that he has fatally undermined the United Kingdom’s relationship with its closest ally, the United States. The Times of London called the vote “a disaster for Cameron, a disaster for Britain and a disaster for the Western alliance.” Lord Ashdown, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, told the BBC that the defeat had “smashed our relationship with the Americans.”
In truth, it did nothing of the kind. Last week’s parliamentary vote is best understood as a corrective to the distortions of the U.S.-British relationship during the years that Tony Blair was prime minister. The vote didn’t mark the death of the “special relationship” -- it marked, however inadvertently, its restoration.
At least from the British perspective, the special relationship has traditionally been a matter of pragmatism as well as principle. That pattern generated a mix of co-operation and confrontation, as practiced by all postwar British prime minsters before Blair adopted the slavish approach. All of them offered support for American foreign policy when they believed it to be in Britain’s interests. But they also all had moments of putting Britain’s interests as they saw them first.
Winston Churchill, whose wartime alliance with Roosevelt initiated the modern special relationship, was nobody’s poodle: he understood British dependence on the United States, but it never prevented him doing his own thing. Harold Macmillan, despite his warm personal relationship with President Kennedy, pushed Britain in the direction of Europe and of détente. Harold Wilson refused to commit British troops to the war in Vietnam, seriously antagonizing President Johnson while satisfying a skeptical British public. Edward Heath regularly infuriated President Nixon with his affinity for Europe; the two sides fell out altogether over the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, when
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