September 25, 2004


Britain first: Tony Blair and George W. Bush are perfect partners — Christian soldiers armed with Bibles and bazookas — but Britain now has more in common with Europe than with the United States (Niall Ferguson, 9/25/04, The Spectator)

[A]s the slow grind of détente gave way to the breakneck disarmament of the Gorbachev years, the last really compelling incentive for Anglo-American solidarity — the Soviet menace — fell away. With the benefit of hindsight, the political romance between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher was nothing more than a flicker of an old flame, sparked more by their shared preoccupations at home than by real common interests abroad. Indeed, had the Anglophobes won the argument in Washington, American support for the Falklands war might never have been forthcoming; few Republicans relished helping the British to salvage those last vestiges of South American empire.

By 1990, then, nothing meaningful remained of the special relationship at the level of geopolitics; the big decisions that ended the Cold War had been taken by the superpowers; on German reunification Mrs Thatcher had simply been overruled. All that remained were those specialised relationships I have already mentioned between the military, financial and academic elites. There was therefore a compelling logic to the European orientation of British foreign policy under the Major government. Neither Douglas Hurd nor Malcolm Rifkind paid much more than lip service to Anglo-American amity. They had seen through the special relationship for the fiction that it had become; with light hearts they accepted Britain’s post-imperial destiny to be ‘at the heart of Europe’. Too bad for them that its heart turned out to be so horribly diseased.

Mr Blair’s fervid Atlanticism therefore marks a discontinuity — a break in the longer-term deterioration of Anglo-American relations. It only makes sense as a backlash against the dismal failures of the Major government’s European strategy, in particular its hopelessly miscalculated responses to the break-up of Yugoslavia and the civil war in Bosnia. For it was Blair’s conversion to the American view of the Balkan problem — that the problem was Slobodan Milosevic — that led him to favour war against Serbia in 1999. And it was the success of that war, opposed as it was by so many of Mr Blair’s critics on both the Left and the Right, that led him in turn to favour war in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The road from Pristina to Baghdad led through Kabul.

As he has made clear repeatedly, and most obviously in his speech to the Labour party conference in October 2001, Mr Blair relishes the American penchant to inject morality into foreign policy. Indeed, to him, war has become an instrument not of policy but of morality — a weapon to be used against wicked dictators in the name of ‘freedom’ and ‘humanity’. When he talks in these terms, he can sometimes sound like an Anglicised Woodrow Wilson. But on closer inspection, Blair’s foreign policy has its roots in Gladstone’s idiosyncratic blend of High Church exaltation and evangelical fervour. It is, of course, precisely this that has enabled the Prime Minister to connect so successfully with two such different American presidents. For practically the only thing Bill Clinton and George Bush have in common is their Christianity.

Donald Rumsfeld once said that Americans don’t ‘do’ empire, rather as Alastair Campbell once said that Downing Street didn’t ‘do’ God. Yet Mr Bush’s tacit imperialism — so much more resolute than that of his predecessor — has found its staunchest support in Mr Blair’s private faith. On they march, these two Christian soldiers, each with a Bible in one hand and a bazooka in the other.

The trouble is that while a majority of Americans are receptive to what might be called a faith-based foreign policy, very few Britons are. The Americans are still a deeply Christian people. The British ceased to be some time ago. Consider the following results from a recent BBC/ICM poll. Over half of Americans agree with the statement ‘My God is the only true god’ compared with fewer than a third of Britons. An even higher proportion of Americans (53 per cent) regularly attend an organised religious service, compared with barely a fifth of Britons. Two thirds of Americans pray regularly; just 28 per cent of Britons do. More than 70 per cent of Americans agree with the statement ‘I would die for my God or beliefs’; fewer than a fifth of Britons do.

This is just part of a fundamental divergence in popular culture which increasingly makes a nonsense of the special relationship. Combining as it does religious fundamentalism, economic individualism and red-blooded patriotism, the American conservatism so vividly described by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge in their book The Right Nation simply has no counterpart in this country. British Tories are a beleaguered minority, vainly trying to preserve a few picturesque pastimes and landscapes from the depredations of New Labour’s corrupt and cynical party apparat.

The decline of Christianity not only helps to explain the crisis of conservatism in Britain. It also forms part of the wider process of covert Europeanisation. Many of us still fondly imagine that we have more in common with ‘our American cousins’ than with our Continental neighbours. It may have been true once (though I find it hard to say exactly when). But it is certainly not true now. Travel to the United States and then to the other European Union states, and you will see: the typical British family looks much more like the typical German family than the typical American family. We eat Italian food. We watch Spanish soccer. We drive German cars. We work Belgian hours. And we buy second homes in France. Above all, we bow before central government as only true Europeans can.

And perhaps nothing illustrates more clearly how very European we are becoming than our attitudes to the United States. Asked in a recent poll to choose between the two candidates for the presidency, 47 per cent of us favoured John Kerry, compared with just 16 per cent who backed George Bush — at a time when Bush was more than 10 per cent ahead in the American polls. On the legitimacy of the Iraq war, too, the British public is now closer to Continental opinion than to American.

All this suggests that Tony Blair’s devout Atlanticism may actually represent the special relationship’s last gasp. For a strategic partnership needs more to sustain it than an affinity between the principals and the self-interest of a few professional elites. It requires a congruence of national interests. It also needs some convergence of popular attitudes. By both those criteria, the Anglo-American alliance is surely living on borrowed time.

This is all true except for one thing, the wisdom for Britain of switching from an Anglospheric orientation to Europeanization. The various pathologies that Mr. Ferguson cites above that make it a more natural fit with Europe than with America should be attacked, rather than blithely accepted, otherwise Britain has no meaningful future. You'd think continued existence would be any nation's paramount self-interest.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 25, 2004 9:12 PM

Sometimes I think Mr. Ferguson's trying to do his part to separate us.

Posted by: Sandy P at September 25, 2004 11:59 PM

The British artistocratic right has always been ambivalent about the partnership. There was Thatcher but there was also Evelyn Waugh, or worse, Philby, Burgess and MacLean. During the second world war, Harold MacMillian quipped to an underling that America was the new Rome and Britain would have to play the role of the Greek satraps. Many of them just can't handle that. Whether they can still pretend they run the show is far more important than standing firm for traditional "Master and Commander" type values the vast majority couldn't articulate if they tried.

One of the great things about the EU if you are France, Germany or Britain is you get to play king-of-the-hill in your own minds and tell yourselves you are leading the pack and playing second fiddle to no one. This is especially easy to do if everyone is effectively isolationist and determined to keep cutting defense. Something similar explains why countries like Canada are so big on the UN--it gives us the illusion we stand as equals with everybody. Laugh all you want, but when you have been fed that ethos solidly from kindergarten onwards and it rolls off the tongue of your politicians like Mom and apple pie, it takes a lot of hard and upsetting intellectual work to undo it, and most will decline and hide behind the old shibboleths if they can. This is the reason I'm always going on here about the intellectual wars and the importance of the U.S. sharpening its verbal swords over international law, Western values, etc. Maybe it would be futile, but if the alternative is to sit back and bet on the long term indigenous good sense of countries like Poland and Turkey, then aren't we wagering on hope against experience.

Concepts like the Anglosphere, or even The West, demand a degree of deference to the States that many are simply not prepared to acknowledge in this age when everybody thinks their opinion and influence should be equal to everyone else's. That is why the election in Australia is going to be so close. They are rightfully proud of what they did, but a country where many citizens self-define by a long struggle to de-couple themselves from British dominance isn't going to say "Ready, aye, ready" to a new power without misgivings and internal conflict. Also, the degree of national cohesion that makes Americans so conscious of their collective welfare and security, and willing to sacrifice for it, is simply breaking down much faster in most other countries, as they have no way to express it outside a discredited jingoism. Let's face it, they are tired and not in any mood to take the noble, tougher route.

The fact that Ferguson goes on and on about imperial roles and is so critical of U.S. reluctance to play 19th century European colonial games is a good indication that his brilliance is not grounded in the here and now, and that he is the type that is prone to lurching wildly. He reminds me a bit of Arianna Huffington or, worse, Oswald Mosley.

Posted by: Peter B at September 26, 2004 7:00 AM