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Tumultous Britain

Author: Walter Russell Mead, Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy
November 1, 2007


There are three leading views about the “special relationship” between the United States and Britain. And they are all wrong.

The first view holds that maintaining the special relationship is Britain’s best chance to exercise more influence than a country with 1 per cent of the world’s population and about 3 per cent of its GDP might hope to. From this perspective, Britain should cling as tightly as possible to America’s skirts.

A second view holds that the special relationship is a bewitching illusion, causing feckless British politicians to delude themselves into thinking that robotic conformity with American policy is in Britain’s best interest. In reality, this view holds, the Americans will not pay a fair price for Britain’s support; far from enhancing Britain’s clout, the perception that London is Uncle Sam’s lapdog actually reduces Britain’s international prestige. Those who take this view usually propose a closer relationship with Europe as Britain’s best alternative.

The third, more American, view reflects former US secretary of state Dean Acheson’s celebrated comment in 1962 that Britain had lost an empire but not yet found a role. Like many American observers, Acheson saw Britain trapped between two unsatisfactory options. Staying close to the US brought Britain little respect or consideration from the Americans, but British efforts to place itself at the heart of EU affairs foundered on the close relationship between Germany and France.

All these views have something to recommend them. Britain probably does enjoy more attention globally because of its close relationship with the US. It was, however, not easy for Tony Blair to describe exactly what concessions he extracted from George W Bush in exchange for Britain’s unflinching support for the invasion of Iraq.

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