Report and Retort: The Special Relationship is Not Flat

In "Designated Driver Diplomacy", John C. Hulsman applies an ill-advised one-dimensional world-view to U.S.-British relations, writes Barak M. Seener.

Read Hulsman's response to Seener.

In 1884 Edwin A. Abbott published his famous book Flatland, followed in 2001 by Ian Stewart's Flatterland. The main message of these books is that persons thinking in terms of one or two dimensions are unable to comprehend "depth" and cannot grapple with multi-dimensional dynamics. Despite geo-strategy's nuance and evasion of neat policy formulations, John Hulsman engages in "flat" thinking in his article "Designated Driver Diplomacy." Hulsman suggests that the Macmillanite strategy-"The Americans are crazy; we must always agree with them strategically, and curb their excesses (and promote our national interest) tactically"-defines British policy towards the U.S. post-Suez.

It remains conjecture whether Macmillan disagreed with U.S. presidents in private. But by stating that Britain has aligned itself with the United States merely to curb the latter's excesses, Hulsman paints a monochromatic picture of the geopolitical landscape. In fact, Britain has overtly opposed American leaders' foreign policy without engaging in subtle Machiavellian strategies to "curb their excesses."

Prime Minister Harold Wilson ignored Lyndon Johnson's desperate pleas for even symbolic participation in Vietnam, while Australia obliged Washington's requests.

Prime Minister Edward Heath was determined to bring Britain into Europe despite Richard Nixon's opposition. Heath was, however, aided by Nixon and Kissinger's preoccupation with détente, which relatively devalued transatlantic alliance.

For all Margaret Thatcher's closeness to President Reagan, she was certainly not afraid of expressing policy disagreements. When in 1985 the United States invaded Grenada-a Commonwealth country-without prior warning, Thatcher publicly voiced her opposition. "She was very adamant and continued to insist that we cancel our landings on Grenada", Reagan later said. "I couldn't tell her that it had already begun."

John Major and Bill Clinton publicly traded diplomatic blows over Bosnia in the early 1990s. For three years Britain led Security Council opposition to U.S. intervention against the Bosnian-Serbs. That the United States no longer viewed Britain as a strategic asset also exacerbated the tension. In anticipation of Major's 1993 White House visit, Clinton aides joked, "Don't forget to say ‘special relationship' when the press comes in." "Oh, yes", Clinton said. "How could I forget? The special relationship!" He then threw his head back and laughed.

These incidents certainly do not bolster Hulsman's argument. And when Britain did support U.S. policies, it did not always play the part of unquestioning and obedient sidekick. Thatcher reinforced President George H. W. Bush's resolve vis-à-vis Security Council Resolution 665, which enabled Britain and the United States to enforce the embargo against Iraq. "Now George, this is no time to go wobbly", the Iron Lady instructed him.

Hulsman's reference to the historical analogy Macmillan offered JFK-"Jack, we see ourselves as the cultured Greeks, who know all the secrets of the world, ready to give all our help to you Romans in running it"-omits that the Greeks were once slaves to the Romans, a position the British have never known in their relations with the United States.

And contrary to Hulsman's claims, the Macmillan strategy did not "always [risk] a public relations disaster" like the Iraq War. Treating the Iraq War as a prophecy-fulfilling episode ex post facto ignores that, at the war's genesis, a majority of the British favoured intervention. Public opinion only turned against the war months later when the occupation soured.

Furthermore, it is indeed a strange sweeping generalization for Hulsman to say that, "Basic patterns of engagement no longer work." Britain is not exactly ignoring the United States on Afghanistan, counter-terrorism, trade, climate change and other issues. Hulsman writes that Blair has "been destroyed" by his adherence to Bush's policies, but he was re-elected in 2005, while the Iraq War continued unabated. And Britain was not, as Hulsman argues, the only major U.S. ally to participate in operation Iraqi Freedom, just ask Spain, Italy and Poland.

Though Britain sometimes does mute its opposition to U.S. policies in favour of the strategic benefits it derives from the United States, this does not entail subtle British attempts to steer U.S. foreign policy in a particular direction. The British House of Commons Select Committee on Intelligence recently issued a report revealing concerns over extraordinary rendition, but made it clear that the value of the intelligence the United States provides Britain is sacrosanct and nothing will be done to risk it.

But more fundamentally, Hulsman's account reflects a larger phenomenon: the search for simple, clear-cut answers to nuanced questions leads to "flat" and flawed policies. The 2002 U.S. National Security Strategy committed these cardinal sins through indiscriminate promotion of democracy irrespective of local conditions and cultures. This has not merely remained the purview of the United States and can be seen in the European Union's soft policies towards Iran.

In an article titled "Train leaders to think differently", Yehezkel Dror attributes the two-dimensional world-view so prevalent in the historical and policy environments to an

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