What will Britain's government do about 'slavish' relations with U.S.?
So what does it mean not to be a “slavish” ally of the United States?
For Washington, that seems to be the salient question from the formation Britain’s first coalition government in half a century, led by Conservative David Cameron. Cameron and his Liberal Democratic partner, Nick Clegg, disagree on a lot of foreign and security matters: whether to move closer to the European Union, for example, or whether to replace Britain’s nuclear-armed Trident submarines.
But on one point, they are in apparent accord: Britain’s relationship with the United States, while still “special,” will no longer be “slavish.” That provocative term was brought up during one of the campaign debates by the more dovish Clegg, who said: “I think it’s sometimes rather embarrassing the way Conservative and Labor politicians talk in this kind of slavish way about the special relationship.” On Wednesday it was picked up by the new foreign secretary of the traditionally pro-American Conservatives, William Hague, who said the relationship should be “solid but not slavish.”
So has Britain gone wobbly on the trans-Atlantic alliance? Probably not. As Dan Balz points out today, both British and American policymakers perceive the need to strengthen ties to emerging powers such as China and India; Cameron has even called for a “special relationship” with India. Britain also faces an even more severe budget crisis than the United States, and an upcoming review of its defense establishment may lead to cuts that would reduce its capacity to support U.S.-led military missions.
However, all of the British parties currently support the war in Afghanistan, where Britain is the second-biggest troop contributor after the United States and plays a vital role in the southern provinces where fighting is heaviest. Nor is the new government likely to step back from the war on terrorism -- Britain faces the same threat from Islamic extremists based in Pakistan’s tribal territories, and from citizens attracted to that cause, as does the United States.
There is one big issue, however, in which the renunciation of “slavishness” could turn out to mean something: Iran.
When Clegg, Cameron and Hague talk about excessive deference to the United States, what they are mostly referring to is the decision by Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair to support the invasion of Iraq -- a step that was deeply unpopular in Britain and led to Blair’s condemnation as “George Bush’s poodle” by much of the chattering classes. British troops are now long gone from Iraq, and they suffered nothing like the casualties of U.S. forces -- 179 were killed, compared to more than 4,000 Americans.
Nonetheless, the poison of Iraq lingers on in British politics: an official inquest into the war produced months of headlines earlier this year, many of them reviving the “poodle” charges. The result is that the next time the United States turns to Britain for help in a difficult military expedition, it could get turned down.
Iran is the most likely scenario. Though the Obama administration clearly has no intention at the moment of taking military action to stop Tehran’s nuclear weapons program, it could come under pressure to do so within a year or two, if the current policy of sanctions fails, or if Iran takes provocative steps such as expelling U.N. inspectors. Israel may decide to launch its own attack, forcing U.S. intervention. In any such situation, the United States will look for help from allies in securing the Persian Gulf and containing an Iranian backlash.
Will the “special relationship” hold in that extreme case? Or will that be the moment when Britain’s awkward coalition government decides not to be “slavish”? Let’s hope we don’t have to find out.
| May 12, 2010; 12:08 PM ET
Categories: Diehl | Tags: Jackson Diehl
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