We’ve got enough pollution around here already without Harold coming over with his fly open… peeing all over me. Lyndon Baines Johnson, 1965
The words ‘special’ and ‘relationship’ contain within them an endless multiplicity of meaning, all the more so, paradoxically, when they are deployed in combination. You may describe your relationship with another person as most definitely ‘special’ if you lavish love and affection upon them, and in return they break your glasses and spit on your shoes. In this case, the word ‘special’ would mean out of the ordinary, unusual in its lack of reciprocity; not the sort of relationship one might expect. A relationship so one-sided that it might have been drawn from the works of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch could quite accurately be defined as ‘special’, especially if the submissive party wished to dignify the affair and delude itself.
Great Britain has a ‘special relationship’ with the United States of America, or so we repeatedly tell ourselves and are assured of such by American politicians. This week an ICM poll for the Guardian suggested that 63 per cent of the population here think that Tony Blair has ‘tied’ Great Britain too closely to the US, a belief held by some 68 per cent of Conservative voters. They may well be right. Blair is an extraordinarily astute politician, well attuned to the shifting sands of public opinion — if not actually governed by them. And yet he has afforded unflinching support these last six years to an American administration which is not merely unpopular in Britain, but actually derided. Why has he done this? I’ve asked some of his more hostile Labour colleagues — the usual suspects — the question on many occasions and they always reply ‘hubris’: he is seduced by the illusion of power by association. And yet it is a hubris which has afflicted every British prime minister since Churchill.
The quotation at the start of this article is a typically salty aside from LBJ to an aide shortly before the then British premier, Harold Wilson, was due to land in Washington for an official visit. It marked the low point of Anglo–US relations since the end of the second world war. At this time, 1965, the US was prosecuting a catastrophic and costly war against the North Vietnamese — a war which was hugely unpopular in Europe. The British position was not to get directly involved, but to ‘give moral support to our major ally’, which is what, publicly, we did. But this support, almost unique at the time, was not enough for LBJ; he wanted our proper commitment, and our troops.
Nine years earlier John Foster Dulles told the United Nations that, ‘with a heavy heart’, the US government could not possibly support Britain’s and France’s assault upon Port Said in an attempt to regain control of the Suez Canal.
With hindsight, there is probably a slightly better case to be made for the war against the supposedly communist North Vietnam than Eden’s obsessive and wicked machinations against President Nasser, although there is not much in it. But my point is this: in two parallel situations, the US behaved as it always does — with pragmatism and self-interest — and Britain behaved with moral cowardice and against our self-interest, in order to preserve that ‘special relationship’. It is a relationship entirely bereft of reciprocity.
Nor is it the case that our ‘special relationship’ confers upon Britain the ability even gently to influence our major ally. Wilson was not able to exert his influence upon LBJ to get the hell out of Vietnam; Blair was not able to persuade Bush that war against Iraq was unnecessary (as some suggested was his strategy at the time). Our views, our national self-interest, count for absolutely nothing in the end.
You will remember that the US was a little less than fully supportive when Argentina, ruled by a fascist junta, illegally occupied the British sovereign territory of the Falkland Islands in 1982. Unconditional support for Britain would have militated against the US’s own, devious, strategy in South America and so we were urged by the likes of Jeane Kirkpatrick to negotiate an end to the crisis. A little later the US itself actually invaded a British Commonwealth country (Grenada) to install its own government — much to the annoyance of both the Queen and our then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.
Mrs Thatcher’s relationship with Ronald Reagan was perhaps more ‘special’ than any which had previously existed between the heads of these two unequal countries — and yet it counted for absolutely nothing. During Thatcher’s premiership not one IRA terrorist was extradited from the US, despite our repeated attempts. As the bombings continued on the British mainland and in Northern Ireland, Noraid was allowed to continue raising money for the bombers in the bars of Boston, New York, Chicago and San Francisco.
It is still the case that no alleged terrorists have been extradited. And if you wish to see that ‘special relationship’ in operation today, all you have to do is look at the actions of the US and Britain in dealing with the fast-track 2003 Extradition Act: ratified in Britain, not ratified in the US — and no sign, either, that it will be, despite the protestations to the contrary of the US ambassador to the UK.
In short, the US acts precisely as any sovereign country should — either out of pragmatism and self-interest or what it believes to be the morally compelling course of action. It may listen to our representations, with half an ear, but it will not worry about them, subsequently entirely ignoring the advice or special pleading. Britain, meanwhile, kids itself that it is in an exalted and perhaps unique relationship with the world’s dominant power. But you should ask: what benefits has this relationship given us? In what sense are we, diplomatically, economically or geopolitically in an advantageous position compared with, say, France or Germany?
That Guardian ICM poll also suggested that most British people believe that Israel has reacted disproportionately in its incursions against Hezbollah in Lebanon. It would seem that the British government thinks this too. But the likelihood of these views affecting the American administration is nil; if it feels that Israel has gone too far, it will say so. And nothing we say about it will make the slightest difference; the US will act as it always does, according to its own lights. There is no such thing as a special relationship, in the terms which most people might understand it. We have kidded ourselves for too long.