It has become disturbingly fashionable to vow that Britain must not “slavishly follow America.” David Cameron has said it. Nick Clegg has said it. And I agree. Nor should Britain “slavishly follow” Luxembourg. Or Burma. Or even the Galapagos Islands, green as they may be.
These latter examples are, of course, throw-aways. It is the phrase “not slavishly follow America,” that elicits a set of knowing nods, and guttural “mmmm’s,” that reveal a belief that Britain has, in fact, slavishly followed America. And that this slavishness is summed up in the phrase “special relationship,” which by implication is a discredit to Britain, a disaster for the world, and something to be stopped.
It is this sentiment, filled with emotion, but not reason, that is troubling. As Prime Minister, I hope you work against this self-affirming, but ultimately destructive drift in thinking.
The anti-slavishness reflex had its most self-assured expression in that brilliant scene in the movie “Love, Actually.” Hugh Grant played a young Prime Minister who saw the American President disregard his ideas while over-regarding his Private Secretary. At the subsequent press conference, the PM defies his guest, stands up for Britannia, and generally shows what decency and humility can do in the world. American audiences cheered the scene just as much as Brits.
And therein lies the fallacy. How could Americans cheer at seeing a British Prime Minister publicly humiliate his American President guest? Because in the movie, the American was being a jerk, we all knew it, and he deserved it.
This is where the anti-slavishness credo starts to unravel. Americans actually share the same set of basic human values and perceptions as their British cousins. In a film about human relationships, we reacted to the same people, the same way.
In the real world, there are competing ideologies and hard-core security threats. Our nations share the same ideology: a commitment to democratic values at home, and protecting a democratic, prosperous and secure space for these values in the world. The anti-slavishness talk is a dangerous indulgence, because it masks the fact that we are allies, united in purpose, yet each bearing responsibility for our own actions.
The principal issue behind this “slavishness” talk is the war in Iraq. I understand the convenience of the argument: Britain did not have a free choice in the matter – it merely did what America told it to do. So Britain is absolved and America is to blame. Next time, and from here on out, Britain can do better by ignoring America.
But this has never been the reality. I have met a number of British Prime Ministers and Cabinet Ministers, and it is simply not in their DNA to do something just because America says so. I have been in several bilateral meetings – Presidents and Prime Ministers, Secretaries of State and Foreign Secretaries – and this is far from the character of those discussions. President Bush held weekly video-conferences with his British counterpart – not to dictate but to listen – to hear the views of an Ally that shared the same values, and had good ideas on how to proceed.
Concerning Iraq, the President and Prime Minister discussed the pro’s and con’s at length – and more intimately than among any other two world leaders. There was ample opportunity for the UK to influence US thinking – and it did so. The fact is that then-Prime Minister Blair made his own decision: It was too risky to allow Iraq to develop weapons of mass destruction (which even France and Germany believed they had), and then possibly pass them to terrorists.
This was not only the Prime Minister’s view, it was confirmed through a vote of Parliament. The special relationship did not make Britain do anything. Rather, it gave Britain unique information and access, and Britain – Government and Parliament alike – chose to go forward. And as former Prime Minister Blair candidly and courageously told the Iraq Inquiry, he would do it again.
Clearly, there are those who disagree with Britain’s decision to go to war. But that is an internal British debate – what was the right or wrong policy – not something to do with the United States or a “special relationship.”
On its own, the Iraq war as an example of slavishness would not stand for long. But it is tied to a deeper myth. That is the notion that the United States and Europe no longer belong to the same civilization, the same set of core values. It is convenient for political activists – particularly on the left – to paint America as a radical, human-rights violating, imperialist, militarist, global-warming ogre. This is a ridiculous caricature.
Here’s what rock-icon Bono had to say about America in Washington last week: “…all of us have a stake in this word “America.” From rock stars in D.C. to street kids in Rio from Harlem to Haiti from Cape Town to Cairo, we all have a stake in this word “America”… because America is not just a country; it’s an idea… and it’s a great idea. So we fight, we argue, we bitch, we protest, we pontificate, we sound off … because we know somewhere in our waters that this place is not just a country… I really believe in the idea of America and I believe in it because at its core is a three-corded strand as important to me as rhythm, melody and harmony. I’m talking about equality, justice and opportunity for all. That’s a catchy melody you’ve got there.”
Leave it to a cultural figure, rather than a politician, to express the heart of the matter. That is the real description of America, and that’s why it matters to Britain. Of course, America is distracted and makes mistakes and can be downright infuriating. But at its heart, it is all about the values we share in common.
The anti-slavishness reflex implies that Britain would do better to stand apart from the United States. But that would be a disservice to these shared values. The United States, and the world, still need a strong, independent Britain dedicating its efforts to advancing and protecting democratic values, prosperity and security. This is not slavishness, but common cause.
Kurt Volker, a senior adviser at the Atlantic Council, was US Ambassador to NATO from 2008-2009, and a diplomat working in Europe for over 20 years. This piece first appeared in the Daily Telegraph.