Geoffrey Wheatcroft's Warning On Britain and the European Union

Jacob Heilbrunn

Great Britain has been conducting an agonizing reappraisal of its relationship with the European Union. For months Prime Minister David Cameron has been trying to elide the issue of a referendum, while placating the anti-European fanatics in his own Tory Party. Now Philip Gordon, the assistant secretary of state for Europe, has raised eyebrows in London with his statement that it would be foolish for Great Britain to attentuate, or even terminate, its attachment to the European Union.

Gordon apparently told journalists that the British should, in effect, get on with it. He said,

We have a growing relationship with the EU as an institution, which has an increasing voice in the world, and we want to see a strong British voice in that EU. That is in America's interests. We welcome an outward-looking EU with Britain in it.

How has it reached the point that Britain, which was denied entry in 1963 into the Common Market by Charles de Gaulle, is now contemplating an exit from the vastly more comprehensive European Union? On Wednesday evening the distinguished British commentator and historian Geoffrey Wheatcroft spoke as part of the Ellsworth lecture series at the Center for the National Interest to elucidate mounting British antipathy towards the European Union. Wheatcroft's message was clear and direct: Great Britain has never felt emotionally attached to the European idea. It was, as the historian Tony Judt observed, one of the few victors of World War II; it did not have to be liberated from the Nazi yoke. It felt superior, even smug, about its record and didn't have to flee, as did the Germans, into the idea of Europe as supplanting its old nationalism. Meanwhile, many Europeans perceived the European Union, at least in its earliest incarnation, as a kind of Catholic confederation, led by the likes of German chancellor Konrad Adenauer. So the British, from the outset, had an ambivalent relationship with the idea of European unity, which was captured in Winston Churchill's famous speech in Zurich in 1946, urging the Europeans forward but reserving an ambiguous status for Great Britain.

But for Great Britain to try and bolt from the European Union would be a disaster for both its and its allies and friends on the continent. Britain, as Wheatcroft suggested, would only end up stranding itself in not-so-splendid isolation. For one thing, the United States would not come of the rescue of its old World War II ally--the idea of a new Anglo-American confederation, which has been touted by some neoconservatives, is a pipedream. There is no conceivable economic incentive for America to elevate Great Britain above, say, Germany, the economic powerhouse of Europe.

Meanwhile, the Irish, as the New York Times points out, are apoplectic at London's EU tergiversations. Prime Minister Enda Kenny said it would be "disastrous" for Britain to leave. He's right. Ireland, for one, has been milking the EU for eleemosynary funds; Kenny's latest tack has been to tell the Germans that Ireland needs further debt relief, which it will likely receive.

It would be foolhardy for Britain to test the patience of its European partners much further. The debate over Europe, as Wheatcroft suggested, is going much farther (and faster) than it ever should have gone. While it might be emotionally satisfying to sever ties with Brussels, the economic results would be catastrophic. Wishful thinking does not constitute sound or rational policy, a lesson that one might think the Blair years had driven home to the British. Alas, there is no guarantee at all that the Tory party, under considerable pressure from the U.K. Independence Party, won't buckle. If Cameron bungles British membership, he will accomplish the not inconsiderable feat of going down as one of the most feckless prime ministers in British history.

Image: Flickr/World Economic Forum. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsEuropean Union RegionsUnited States

Drone Strikes and Congressional Power

The Buzz

Micah Zenko has a new report out yesterday at the Council on Foreign Relations about drone strikes. It’s an in-depth treatment of many of the issues raised by Washington’s current policies regarding drone use. Here’s a snapshot of Zenko’s conclusions:

The United States should more fully explain and reform aspects of its policies on drone strikes in nonbattlefield settings by ending the controversial practice of “signature strikes”; limiting targeted killings to leaders of transnational terrorist organizations and individuals with direct involvement in past or ongoing plots against the United States and its allies; and clarifying rules of the road for drone strikes in nonbattlefield settings.

The report is well worth reading in full. Particularly valuable are Zenko’s calls for reform regarding “signature strikes” and targeting policy, as well as his focus on how drone strikes can at times work against other stated foreign-policy goals of the United States. Also noteworthy is the fact that at the end of his report, Zenko offers recommendations to Congress as well as to the executive branch. He observes, “Despite nearly ten years of nonbattlefield targeted killings, no congressional committee has conducted a hearing on any aspect of them.” Among his recommendations to Congress are that it should:

Demand regular White House briefings on drone strikes and how such operations are coordinated with broader foreign policy objectives . . .

Hold hearings with government officials and nongovernmental experts on the short- and long-term effects of U.S. targeted killings . . . and

Withhold funding and/or subpoena the executive branch if cooperation is not forthcoming.

The continuing ceding of power from Congress to the executive branch on foreign and defense policy is one of the more consequential trends in recent American history. If Congress is interested in reasserting its role in these areas, increased attention to and oversight of the drone program would be an good place to start.

TopicsCongressDefenseMilitary StrategyPoliticsSecurity RegionsUnited States

The Coin to End All Coins

The Buzz

Armageddon-style battles over raising the debt ceiling are becoming an annual tradition here in Washington. The latest iteration, fresh on the heels of the near-miss on the “fiscal cliff,” promises to once again call the effectiveness and creditworthiness of the United States government into doubt. At a time when financial markets seem to be responding to government decisions as much as economic realities, this is hardly welcome, and it appears likely that Congress will once again kick the can down the road, making a temporary deal in order to fight the battle again in a year or so.

But never fear! An obscure legal loophole might allow the debt limit problem to be solved once and for all.

The Treasury’s ability to create new money is subject to a number of restrictions, including on the denominations of coins. Except, that is, platinum coins. Platinum isn’t normally found in American change—you’re more likely to encounter it in your car’s catalytic converter than in your pocket—but the U.S. Mint occasionally produces commemorative coins in a range of metals. In theory, then, President Obama would be acting within his legal powers if he ordered the production of a platinum coin valued at one trillion dollars, or at any other amount he chose. This coin could then be deposited at the Federal Reserve, allowing new debt to be issued against its value. Debt crisis averted!

The idea has been repeatedly plugged by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman on his New York Times blog, where he argues minting the coin won’t be economically harmful because the economy is in a liquidity trap, that is, people are hoarding cash, preventing government cash infusions from driving interest rates or growth up. I won’t pretend I have standing to debate a Nobel winner (though the field of economics is bitterly divided on many points, including this one). However, economic harm is not the only thing worth considering when discussing the coin option. The Constitution grants Congress, not the president, the ability to borrow money, to coin it, and to regulate its value. The minting of a coin worth nearly a tenth of the money supply would thus be a serious infringement of Congressional power. Couldn’t a president use platinum coins to radically loosen the legislature’s grip on the purse strings, completely bypassing it when borrowing new money?

Our current president has not shown a taste for absurd theatrics, so it’s a bit hard to believe that he would take Krugman’s advice and stamp a coin with a dozen zeros. But if he did, it would only continue the dangerous, decades-long trend of the executive branch taking more and more power from Congress.

TopicsMonetary Policy RegionsUnited States

Dean Acheson, National Interest and the Special Relationship

The Buzz

The idea of a special relationship between the United States and Britain may have been supported by the sentiments of America's former WASP establishment. But according to Geoffrey Wheatcroft, it was one of the central figures of the WASP elite who most prominently stated that the idea of a special relationship was a fantasy, particularly to the partner looking across the sea from the east.

In the Spectator, Wheatcroft recounts how in 1962 Dean Acheson, then a former Secretary of State with an impressive resumé ("Lend-Lease, Bretton Woods, the coming of the Cold War, the Truman Doctrine, the creation of Nato, the Korean war"), dropped a transatlantic political bomb in a speech at West Point. According to Wheatcroft, most of the speech was a conventional analysis of Cold War strategy. What was "almost an aside" got the most attention:

Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role — that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States, a role based on being head of a ‘commonwealth’ which has no political structure, or unity, or strength — this role is about played out. Great Britain, attempting to be a broker between the United States and Russia, has seemed to conduct policy as weak as its military power.

This unsurprisingly was deeply offensive to a country in the midst of dismantling an empire, and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and his successor Harold Wilson both publicly complained. Wheatcroft sides with Acheson, pointing out the proof had already come in 1947, when Truman ignored the Brits and supported a UN partition that would lead to the creation of Israel; and later in 1956, when Eisenhower ended the Franco-British operation in the Suez.

The episode illustrates the triumph of unsentimental interests over more nebulous notions of common cultural heritage, Wheatcroft concludes:

Acheson was right about Great Britain, and Macmillan’s clutching at American friendship seems in hindsight a poignant or even pitiful fantasy, though not one that ended with him. ... Like other prime ministers before and since, he persuaded himself that there was some mystical bond between the two countries, quite failing to see that ‘the United States, like all great powers, would in the end follow — without necessarily much regard for others — what it perceived from time to time to be its own interests’. Or as Palmerston said, in words of which Mikhail Gorbachev once reminded Margaret Thatcher, not that she needed reminding any more than de Gaulle did, nations have no eternal friends and no eternal foe, only eternal interests. That truth will never be ‘about played out’.

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Prisoner Swap in Syria

The Buzz

Over 2,100 prisoners held by Syrian authorities were freed this morning in exchange for forty-eight Iranian prisoners released by rebel forces, according to the New York Times. This prisoner exchange appears to be the largest yet in the two-year-long uprising against autocrat Bashar al-Assad.

Above all, this exchange seems most telling about the relationship between Assad and Iran. Louquay Moqdad, a Free Syrian Army spokesman, told the Washington Post, “Assad proved he is an Iranian puppet because he agreed to release over 2,000 in return for 48 Iranians. He did not care about Syrian officers which are also detained with us.” Assad on the other hand, vowed to continue fighting "as long as there is one terrorist left in Syria."

The Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief is said to have helped broker the swap.

TopicsAutocracySociety RegionsIranSyria