Mark Mardell, the BBC’s newly minted North America editor, offers an interesting take on the so-called “Special Relationship.”


When Obama came to Europe he called the French “our first and oldest allies”. A well educated and smart person I was with turned to me and said: “Surely that was us?” Er, no. We were the hated enemy, and the fledgling republic was allied to the French because they were fighting us.

There’s our debt in two world wars, and especially the last one. If Franklin Roosevelt hadn’t prepared for years to come in on our side we would probably have lost. If we had, Europe would have been a different place. The concept of the West would not exist, with Soviet-style regimes in Greece, Italy, France and all of Germany. Even if Britain hadn’t been touched it would have been a lonely place for parliamentary democracy.

America is the one country that makes us feel rather inferior, where the jokes about Brits hurt. Britain is the uncharismatic older brother who rather painfully insists on going around with his younger, dynamic sibling.

But what is in it for the US?

We are a medium-sized power with a skilled military and an intelligence operation, particularly GCHQ, that allows us to punch above our weight, in denial about our place in the world. Americans may be grateful for our unstinting backing, but will spend more diplomatic effort persuading those whose support is more conditional.

The US does have a special relationship with Britain.

It also has a special relationship with Israel, Pakistan and Mexico. Come to that, its relationship is special, in a different way, with one time foes like Vietnam or Russia or Cuba. As one American diplomat put it “we have a special relationship with every country”.

But America is an ever changing nation. Obama is a symbol of that. It is less white, less English, even linguistically, with each passing year.

Similarly, former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker tells Der Spiegel that “Without American leadership there would have been no [German] unification.”

SPIEGEL: Secretary Baker, 20 years ago the Berlin Wall fell and the unification of the two postwar German states happened a year later. Who deserves the credit for this great servic?

Baker: A lot of people deserve the credit for it. The former leader of the Soviet Union, Michael Gorbachev, certainly must be named, who together with my former counterpart and friend Eduard Shevardnadze made the fundamental decision not to keep the Soviet empire together by the use of force. It had been built by force. It had been maintained by force. So that was a remarkable commitment.


SPIEGEL: In early 1989, a strategic paper from a State Department led by you saw Gorbachev engaged in a “public diplomacy blitzkrieg.” Had the United States temporarily lost its leadership role in Europe?

Baker: Without American leadership there would have been no unification. Do not forget that Gorbachev wanted many things but not unification. France and Great Britain were also highly skeptical. They were very concerned that history would repeat itself. But we didn’t feel that way here.

SPIEGEL: Did French President Francois Mitterand and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher actually believe that a new Hitler would come to power?

Baker: It wasn’t just Adolf Hitler. Germany had twice within a very short time invaded its neighbors. They had in the back of their minds the first world war as well. My father was a soldier in World War I. I was not even 10 years old when Germany already instigated World War II.

SPIEGEL: What was the role of Helmut Kohl, who now has himself celebrated as the chancellor of Unification?

Baker: Without Helmut Kohl, it would not have happened. Without George Bush, it would not have happened. Without Gorbachev, it would not have happened. More than one statesman was needed to make such a historic achievement possible. And we have to give a lot of credit to the spirit of the people of the captive nations of Eastern and Central Europe, including the German Democratic Republic. They never gave up.

At the same time, though,

SPIEGEL: “We Americans never danced on the Wall,” you once said. Why such modesty?

Baker: The scope of our negotiations with the Russians was not over on the day the Wall came down. We needed them for the soon to follow “Two-Plus-Four” negotiations (between the two Germanys and the four powers that occupied Germany after World War II — Russia, the United States, Britain and France), we needed them later on for the disarmament talks. We did not want to do anything that could have caused unnecessary embarrassment for Gorbachev.

SPIEGEL: The Reagan administration, where you served as secretary of the treasury, was more of a stranger to this kind of restraint. “Tear down this Wall, Mr. Gorbachev,” Ronald Reagan called out at the Brandenburg Gate.

Baker: That was correct at the time. Reagan’s determination, part of which was the decision to start SDI, the ballistic missile defense system, formed the basis for the events that led to reunification. But as events happened in rapid succession and history sped up dramatically, any triumphalism would have been misplaced. You could not do business with Gorbachev and simultaneously stab him in the eyes.

SPIEGEL: And that clearly was not the nature of the 41st President. “I am not an emotional kind of guy,” he once famously said about himself.

Baker: George Bush was a wise president. History will duly respect him for his restraint.

His son, some may recall, campaigned on restoring that tradition, promising a “humble foreign policy.”  After the 9/11 attacks, many critics, especially in Europe, thought he had done the opposite with his “with us or against us” swagger.  Modesty, though, is the proper tone for a superpower in its relations with its allies.  The economic and military disparities are sufficiently obvious without rubbing anyone’s noses in them.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

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