President Obama has done Britain and Europe a huge favor. By recasting the ‘special’ relationship as an essential relationship the president has released London from the shackles of an increasingly hollow ‘specialness.’ London must now seize this moment to re-balance Britain’s foreign and security policy so that British influence can be re-established where it matters for America – in Europe and with key members of a resurgent Commonwealth. Obama is inviting Britain to become a better ally and Britain must meet that challenge. The ‘special’ relationship has now come full circle and the president has placed it graciously in the oak cask of history where it belongs.
Britain’s relationship with America is essential and will endure. There is and will remain a special place for the British in the American mind. However, that place must not become a museum. The special relationship began formally seventy years ago with the August 1941 signing of the Atlantic Charter. However, the political roots for the relationship were established not by power-brokers and statesmen, but by an American journalist – Ed Murrow.
On 22 September, 1940 Murrow began his ‘London rooftops’ broadcasts to the American people, enduring the worst of the Blitz to tell a pacifist American people of Britain’s defiance of Nazi Germany. Gradually the broadcasts generated a groundswell of popular and political support for Britain’s struggle. That in turn created the political space in Washington for President Roosevelt to prepare America for the coming struggle between might and right.
The special relationship was always a leadership relationship. As such it blossomed from the vital anti-Nazi alliance into critical transatlantic solidarity between democratic North American and democratic Europe in the struggle against Soviet communism. From the very beginning the special relationship was unique; a political relationship underpinned by genuine affection that in spite of the many nay-sayers continues to this day.
However, that was then and this is now. In 1940 Britain was still a global power, with the world’s most powerful navy and probably the most advanced air force (certainly air defence). A quarter of the world’s population was headed by the King Emperor, George VI. In other words the ‘special’ relationship was essentially between political equals – even if one was coming and the other going. Today, the contrast in fortunes could not be greater.
The twenty-first century will still be the American century for all the contortions of the pessimists, including an increasingly wrong Henry Kissinger (it is never good to see one’s heroes fall to Earth). Americans and Britons routinely exaggerate the strengths of others and the weakness of self. Britain will still be an essential partner of the United States, but simply lacks the clout to be THE exclusive special partner of the United States. American grand strategy (the organisation of immense means in pursuit of global ends) cannot afford to maintain such an illusion any longer. Today, America remains the challenged but indispensable power, whilst Britain is much diminished, albeit far less diminished than is currently fashionable in fashionable London. Britain stands alongside France as a great power. Britain is neither an Italy, nor indeed a Germany, and hopefully never will be a Belgium.
Ultimately, for the all the genuineness of the relationship between two countries that have done more to shape a positive world than any two others in history, relative power and influence are at the core of the link – both economic and military. Power that is underpinned by an idea – the new West. That was the essence of Ed Murrow’s broadcasts from London. Britain was not just another old European power fighting for power, but family standing for values. As George VI said in his famous King’s Speech, on the outbreak of war on 3 September, 1939, “We have been forced into a conflict, for we are called, with our allies, to meet the challenge of a principle which, if it were to prevail, would be fatal to any civilized order in the world”. The same could be said of the struggle against the new extremism during which America and Britain have again stood shoulder to shoulder and paid a heavy price in blood and geld.
New, more systemic challenges to the West will come – both North America and Europe. And, America needs a new ‘special’ partner and for all its failings that partner must in time be Europe as a whole. Britain has therefore a critical role to play with France in preparing Europe for the new Special Relationship relevant to the twenty-first century, rather than a relic of the twentieth. After all, that is what America and Britain fought for.
To such an end Britain must first start to live up to its potential in the world and put aside the obsession with decline which is doing so much to reduce essential British influence in those parts America cannot reach. Second, Britain must forge a new partnership with France to properly renovate the European pillar of a new transatlantic relationship. Third, the relationship must be properly cast in a global context. Whilst the two pillars will look outwards rather than inwards all-important solidarity must be seen to be preserved. The US will be necessarily focussed on Asia-Pacific whilst Europe must get its act together in North Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Britain’s Europeaness must therefore become an asset not a liability. Fourth, the enduring military to military special relationship must set an agenda to properly prepare NATO for the twenty-first century. Fifth, Britain and France must use their collective influence to forge a direct EU-US special relationship that can reinforce the security of the respective homelands (as opposed to purely defence-related matters), particularly as it relates to counter-terrorism and counter-crime.
Above all, Britain must re-discover the global ambition to foster the Commonwealth into a new security partnership. The West is an idea rather than a place and such groupings are firmly anchored in the idea for which America and Britain fought . It is an idea that is as compelling and attractive today as it was in the dark days of disaster in 1940 and 1941. The Empire may have indeed become a Commonwealth and Britain but one equal member of it, but as a vehicle for stabilising influence the Commonwealth can play a vital role. Several of the emergent states are committed members.
Murrow once said; “A reporter is always concerned with tomorrow. There’s nothing tangible of yesterday. All I can say I’ve done is agitate the air ten or fifteen minutes and then boom – it’s gone”. Characteristically modest as ever, Murrow may well have been talking of contemporary British politics and politicians. That must end. It is time therefore for Britain to look to the future of an Essential Relationship, America certainly is.
Thank you and goodnight, Mr President.
Professor Julian Lindley-French is a member of the Strategic Advisor’s Group of the Atlantic Council, Special Professor of Strategic Studies, University of Leiden, Netherlands and Associate Fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London. This essay first appeared on his personal blog,Lindley-French’s Blog Blast. Photo credit: Getty Images.