by Benjamin Schwarz
Two vignettes present seemingly antithetical views of Anglo-American relations since the World War II. The first is a 1952 satirical primer by the British humorist Stephen Potter on the so-called special relationship between the United States and Britain: “First lessons concentrate on the necessity of always using the same phrases, and using them again and again. … ‘We have a lot in common.’ ‘After all, we come from the same stock.’ ‘We have a lot to learn from each other.’”
The second is the denouement of the 1979 BBC adaptation of John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, in which the well-born, patriotic, British intelligence officer, bewailing what he sees as his country’s sycophantic dependence on the United States, explains that he had resolved to become a Soviet agent when he realized that the British had turned into nothing more than “America’s street walkers.”
Although Ian Buruma, the prolific author of “Anglomania” and the former editor of The New York Review of Books, cites neither artifact in his new book, “The Churchill Complex,” he aims to show how the cultivation of the relationship Potter lampooned — and that Buruma calls a “curse” — led to one similar to what le Carré’s mole laments.
The Churchill Complex examines the invented tradition that is the special relationship. The stock phrases used to define that liaison — “common heritage,” “common values” and “kinship of ideals,” as well as the self-flattering conviction that “when the United States and the United Kingdom stand together … people around the world are more secure and they are more prosperous” — have been the rhetorical expression of Britain’s ongoing effort to bind itself to American power, and of Washington’s ongoing desire to keep Britain, a diminished but still useful ally, on side. The quotations, strikingly reminiscent of Potter’s sendup, happen to be from Barack Obama, but they are all but identical to the intonations of every president and prime minister since 1941.
The special relationship was hardly a natural condition based in profound kinship. Rather, it was born of Britain’s desperation and of America’s realization that its security would be imperiled by a British defeat or surrender. The contours of the Grand Alliance fully and perhaps inevitably reflected the gross imbalance of military and economic power between its members. Holding virtually all the cards, Washington pursued its interests by relentlessly extracting maximum concessions from a forlorn and increasingly impotent Britain. Yielding naval-basing rights to an America bent on achieving postwar global dominance, forfeiting the nuclear program it had carefully built to exclusive American control and submitting to the all but extortionate terms Washington demanded for the financial assistance needed to prosecute the war, London had to abide by the terms of a forced and unequal marriage.
While Buruma recounts the vision of the warm, open partnership between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill that nearly every postwar American and British leader has solemnly invoked, that relationship was perforce defined by their nations’ uneven alliance, with Churchill compelled to play the importunate suitor wooing a congenitally manipulative, distant and noncommittal Roosevelt. As America’s supplicant, Churchill contrived the special relationship, a sentimentalized international bond based not in shifting national interests but on permanently shared values. In the latter years of the war and in the immediate postwar period, Churchill expanded the ambit and meaning of that concept to far-reaching effect.
Both the United States and Britain conducted their wartime relationship cognizant of their postwar international positions. Here the two countries’ interests diverged. Outwardly far more hostile to British colonialism than to Soviet totalitarianism, Roosevelt made clear his expectation that Britain’s empire would be liquidated. More generally, Washington intended to lead an economically liberal global order, a vision inimical to Britain’s imperial preference system and its role as a world power. Churchill was enamored of that role and was unwilling, indeed unable, to countenance its end. But he was also acutely aware of Britain’s diminished political and economic position, and therefore of the impossibility of independently sustaining that role. If it were to continue to define itself as a global power, Britain would have to glom onto American hegemony.
To that end, Churchill proposed to a dismissive Roosevelt a series of desperate and fancifully detailed schemes — including a literal merger of the British Empire and the United States (with perhaps “some form of common citizenship”) and a postwar Anglo-American condominium in which the British and Americans, bound in “familial closeness,” would jointly police the world. Finally, when out of office in 1946, Churchill saw that the emerging Soviet threat gave Britain the opportunity to harness itself to the United States’ international preponderance, and in fact to conflate America’s and Britain’s global roles. In warning of an “iron curtain,” Churchill essentially resubmitted his plan for a Pax Anglo-Americana
Buruma’s account perhaps unintentionally demonstrates that permanently yoking Britain’s global role to America’s has unnecessarily made permanent Britain’s subservient wartime relationship to the United States. More explicitly, Buruma maintains that London’s ongoing attachment to the special relationship has thwarted Britain from pursuing what he sees as its “proper” international role.
For the past 80 years, Labour and Tory prime ministers alike have been almost as unwilling as Churchill to forsake their vision of Britain as a global power. Even the Labour prime minister Harold Wilson, the antithesis of an imperial statesman, insisted that Britain’s “frontiers were on the Himalayas.” And because only London’s tight ties to Washington bestow on Britain its great power status, successive British governments have felt compelled to assent to Washington’s policies, even when London has thought those policies unwise or dangerous. Moreover, although the United States regularly indulged in fulsome and cost-free rhetoric in praise of the Anglo-American bond, it asserted its dominance whenever that connection conflicted with American interests.
Buruma’s principal objection to the special relationship is that it distracted Britain from playing a key part in Europe’s ever closer union. But in fact many devotees of the alliance, such as Harold Macmillan, Tony Blair and David Cameron, have also been among the strongest advocates of closer integration with Europe. The special relationship in fact prescribed it: Washington pressed Britain to involve itself in Europe to enhance America’s goal of bolstering Western Europe as a self-sustaining “pillar” in the Cold War. Indeed, the desire to please Washington was among Macmillan’s main reasons for applying for membership in the European Economic Community. Moreover, the most prominent postwar figures who opposed Britain’s entry into Europe — Aneurin Bevan, Richard Crossman, Barbara Castle, Michael Foot, Enoch Powell, Tony Benn — were “Little Englanders” and therefore also hostile to the special relationship.
In assessing the British drive to play an expansive role on the international stage, it’s helpful to remember that, to its British adherents, the special relationship is a means toward that end, not an end in itself, and that the two recent prime ministers most ardent in pursuing that role — Blair and Cameron — were devoted to both the American connection and to the E.U. In pursuit of what Blair has celebrated as the ambitious policy of “regime change,” they each committed Britain to accompany the United States in military interventions — in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya (and pressed for intervention in Syria, though that was stymied by Parliamentary opposition).
But neither leader undertook those interventions to sustain the special relationship. Rather, that relationship allowed them to assume the global role they coveted. Buruma rightly characterizes Blair as “a true believer” in the trans-Atlantic doctrine of muscular liberal interventionism; Cameron has described himself as “the heir to Blair.” Clearly, many Britons in both parties share Buruma’s skepticism toward the international role Blair and Cameron have pursued, but Buruma, who also conspicuously wears the mantle of anti-Brexit cosmopolitan, probably wouldn’t plump, as some would, for a Little Englander revival to counter the interventionism that the special relationship has enabled.