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 Heath felt bullied and alienated by American support for Israel.

The pragmatists also included Margaret Thatcher, who mixed broad support for U.S. foreign policy in the 1980s with frequent sharp criticisms and an occasional refusal to play along. Sometimes she even sided with the Germans when she thought Reagan’s anti-communism was insufficiently sensitive to the political needs of America’s European allies. She rightly surmised that British influence with the United States and within Europe depended on intermittent rebuffs.

The relationship was upended during the Blair years, particularly in the period after 2001. Blair had a theory that parted ways with the prevailing practice of transatlantic relations. His premise was that the United States was so powerful that London could only pursue interests at the margins of Washington’s own. On this view there was nothing Britain could do that couldn’t be done better in conjunction with the Americans. The only hope of influencing U.S. military actions was by first offering unwavering solidarity with broad U.S. strategy.

This is what Blair seems sincerely to have believed, however psychologically implausible and politically innocent it appears: he thought there could be never be any political mileage in the United Kingdom going its own way. When possible he made his presence felt by egging the Americans on to greater military commitment, as happened with Clinton over Bosnia. He provided full British support for the invasion of Afghanistan. He liked to say of the Iraq war that he would have wanted to do it even if Bush hadn’t. But of course he couldn’t have done any of this on his own. His approach required the United States to be in the lead. That meant he had nothing to bargain with. He was limited to providing more fluent and moralized defenses of U.S. military action than America’s leaders could sometimes offer. No doubt they welcomed his rhetorical gifts but they hardly felt it necessary to consider the alternatives. 

Blair’s convictions persuaded him to override public and parliamentary doubts in the run-up to the Iraq war with inflated claims about the threat posed by Saddam. Not only did these claims prove empty but so too did the promise of future influence on American action. In his memoirs, Blair tells us that he repeatedly warned the Bush administration about the need to plan for post-conflict reconstruction in Iraq. He tried to temper the cavalier indifference of Rumsfeld and Cheney to anything but American interests in the region. But there is little indication that they were listening. The British public, meanwhile, was never persuaded that the United Kingdom had gained anything by participation in an invasion that would have happened anyway, with the same result, whether British soldiers had been involved or not.

Last week’s defeat in parliament for the British government in a vote on military action against Syria is striking evidence of how much Blair’s shadow still hangs over transatlantic politics. The actions of all the leading British players in the drama were shaped by their views of Blair. Cameron and his most hawkish ministers -- including Michael Gove, the Education Minister -- are all devoted admirers of Blair’s high-minded liberal interventionism. They would like to be him and, if possible, to outdo him. (Even so, aware of the toxic consequences of reminding his opponents too closely of Blair, Cameron did what he could in parliament to show that he had learned from his hero’s mistakes. He did not oversell the evidence of the Assad regime’s involvement in the chemical attack on Damascus, conceding that it is in the nature of military intelligence to be less than certain.)

Meanwhile, among Blair’s successors in the Labour opposition and the skeptics on the government backbenches are determined to avoid being Blair at all costs. However much the Syrian situation differs from the run-up to war in Iraq, there are enough superficial similarities to give the anti-Blairites a nagging sense of déjà vu: contested military intelligence, UN inspectors denied the time to do their work, a rush to judgment, a deeply skeptical public. Opinion polls conducted last week indicate that the British public is even more skeptical about getting involved this time around.

British politicians no longer dare override these reservations in the name of the special relationship, as Blair once did. Cameron made this clear when he conceded defeat: the vote in parliament, he said, clearly reflected the views of the British people, which is why it had to be respected. But the irony is that, however little he intended it, Cameron has already done more to reconfigure the approach of an American president than Blair ever did with Bush. His decision to call and then abide by a parliamentary vote changed the balance of thinking in the White House. Obama didn’t decide to ask for congressional support for military action simply because Cameron had done the same with parliament. But it is hard to believe he would have ended up doing it if Cameron hadn’t done it first.

After the exceptional circumstances of the Blair years, with all their false certainties, British politics has reverted to the norm of make do and mend when it comes to foreign policy in general and relations with the United States in particular. The special relationship is back to its more usual messy and haphazard state. Inconsistencies abound and further surprises are in store. This may yet work out to the advantage of both parties.

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  • DAVID RUNCIMAN is Professor of Politics at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. His book, The Confidence Trap, will be published in October.
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