Designated Driver Diplomacy

Designated Driver Diplomacy

Mini Teaser: Tory leader David Cameron has outlined a striking new vision for the Anglo-American partnership—with Britain in the role of the "skeptical friend."

by Author(s): John C. Hulsman

IT HAS been rightly noted in literally hundreds of articles that the Iraq debacle has underscored not just the specific incompetence of the Bush Administration, but has revealed, more generally, the built-in failings of the neoconservative movement itself. Lost in neoconservatism's colossal crash is the fact that two other, far more successful European ways of working with America also withered in Iraq's aftermath, leaving the transatlantic relationship without a coherent modus operandi.

SINCE THE Suez crisis of 1956, when the United States humiliated (rightly, in my view) its colonial allies Britain and France, these two leading European powers have come to embody the dueling methods of dealing with their difficult American ally. Both Britain and France proceeded from Suez with the strongly held view that the Eisenhower Administration had been wrong to stop their efforts to humble Nasser's Egypt. From that supposed mistake, both London and Paris feared that, left alone, Washington would continue to make such grievous errors. However, in setting a template for how to deal with America, the French and British came to diametrically opposed views.

With the Suez wound still fresh, President Charles de Gaulle founded the French Fifth Republic in 1958 with a very clear idea in mind as to how the Americans should be engaged. Put simply, Gaullism's response to America goes like this: "The Americans are crazy; we must always try to act as an honest broker strategically to counter their excesses. To do so, we must have a relatively equal seat at the table if they are to take our concerns seriously." With the crises in Algeria and French Indochina underscoring the decline of French power, de Gaulle quickly came to the conclusion that only a French-led Europe would give Paris the power necessary to retain a seat at the great-power table. In one form or another, such diverse characters as de Gaulle, d'Estaing, Mitterrand and Chirac have followed this basic tenet of French foreign policy. However, its declining relevance was revealed for all to see during the Iraq crisis.

Iraq revealed an inherent danger in de Gaulle's elegant view. If France proves itself incapable of creating a fairly coherent pole of power, its challenge to American primacy will prove little more than an annoyance to Washington. Rather than gaining America's grudging respect, Paris will merely be alienating the sole remaining superpower-thereby drastically limiting its global influence, which is the last thing any French president wants to do.

Yet this is what actually happened in terms of Iraq. The hidden diplomatic story at the heart of the conflict is that while European public opinion was fairly uniformly against the invasion, European governments split almost down the middle, with Aznar's Spain, Berlusconi's Italy, Kwasniewski's Poland and Blair's Britain all siding with President Bush, while Jacques Chirac and Germany's Schröder led European governmental opposition to the war. Far from achieving the unity the Gaullist strategy required, Chirac went on to make things worse, famously telling the new East European members of the European Union, who largely supported the White House, that "they had missed a good opportunity to shut up." This was not the rant of some deranged mind; rather Chirac, in his frustration, was acknowledging that the Gaullist dream of European unity, that the EU was a ticket for France back to great-power status, lay in ruins. He could (and did) annoy America. But he could not prevent the invasion, or play a major role in the Middle East. Worse, he had exposed the death of a fifty-year-old French foreign-policy strategy.

SOMETIMES ANECDOTES (be they partly apocryphal or not) say more than narratives about relations between countries. Supposedly, Jack Kennedy asked his friend, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, what the British really thought about the Americans. Surprised, Macmillan mentioned British respect for America's technological prowess, ease with logistics and pioneering capitalistic spirit. Then he came to the sting in the scorpion's tail. "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." The president's response, if he offered one, is not recorded. But this anecdote never fails to lead to involuntary nods whenever I present it in London.

For in a very real way, this conceit (true or not) has served as the basis for Britain's relationship with America for the past fifty years. If the Gaullist dream was to confront America with a rival-ally, the Macmillanite modus operandi is entirely different: "The Americans are crazy; we must always agree with them strategically, and curb their excesses (and promote our national interest) tactically." This is the policy line, followed almost without interruption (with the disastrous exception of Anthony Eden) from Churchill to Blair.

As with Gaullism, there is a dangerous flaw in this largely successful strategy. If British public opinion was not made at least somewhat aware of the tangible results its government received for following such a policy, the pernicious idea could soon surface that London was merely slavishly following the American lead without getting anything from such a strategy in return. As most of the process was done behind closed doors, British leaders could not afford to spell out how they had maneuvered the Americans to their advantage without losing the very ability to influence Washington that such a plan entirely depended on. In other words, the Macmillanite strategy always risked a public-relations disaster.

If the French model has been destroyed, it is hard to imagine a greater casualty of the Iraq War than the comfortable British model of how to deal with what novelist John le Carré has somewhat ambiguously termed "the cousins." The prime minister, in boldly strategically supporting President Bush in Iraq, not just diplomatically, but also in terms of actual boots on the ground, was the only major ally to significantly join America in participating in the Iraq War. Tony Blair, the most gifted British politician of his age, has been destroyed over his following standard British practices in dealing with the Americans. His demise will be a cautionary tale for all British politicians for the foreseeable future; in fact, today one can scarcely meet any of them without the topic coming up in hushed tones.

Diplomatically, the strategy seemed destined to succeed. The Bush White House, desperate for real allies to point to as a way to refute the charge of its unilateralism, was only too happy to accede to the prime minister's wish to go to the un for another resolution against Saddam before invading-as a way to give the prime minister political cover with his people. This, in addition to reported help with Northern Ireland and making a more robust effort over the Arab-Israeli peace process, was the tactical price Blair exacted for his strategic support.

So far, so good. However, the Security Council initiative disastrously backfired, exposing the Bush Administration as going through the motions, rather than actively considering opposing points of view regarding Iraq. This hardened British and European public opinion further against the war. As the conflict began to go horribly wrong-and Blair proved unable to point to any tangible benefit for British support for President Bush-the prime minister's poll numbers, stratospheric for so long, took a nosedive. Worse, he was ridiculed (and it stuck) as "a poodle" of the United States, thus exposing the fatal flaw in the Macmillanite strategy. We now live in a world where both basic European patterns of engagement with America no longer work.

AT FIRST glance, David Cameron, the new leader of the British Conservatives, would not seem the most likely leader of a new strategic direction for transatlantic relations. While Cameron has undoubtedly been successful in emerging as the first Tory leader since John Major with a real chance of becoming prime minister (on March 20, 2007, an icm Poll had Cameron's Party ten points clear of Labour, with the number set to rise with this year's coronation of Gordon Brown as the new prime minister), he has done so by concentrating almost solely on British domestic initiatives. By focusing on such counterintuitive issues for Conservatives as education, the environment and administering the British welfare state more effectively, Cameron has made the Tories electable again. However, part of his heretofore-successful strategy has hinged on distancing himself from his party's traditional close ties with America, hoping to avoid the political consequences of the meltdown of America's popularity in Britain, the phenomenon that has so damaged Tony Blair.

Yet Cameron's generally ignored foreign-policy speech of September 11, 2006, deserves much closer analysis. For in it he acknowledges the wreckage of the Macmillanite and Gaullist projects, while candidly admitting his aversion to American neoconservatism. Better still, he begins to grope for a new way forward, advocating that Britain (and the other great powers in Europe) can best rejuvenate the transatlantic relationship by playing the role of "skeptical friend" to America.

Cameron first rejects the Gaullist temptation toward anti-Americanism, a vice made all the more politically attractive in London following the collapse of British public support for the Iraq War. In other words, despite any dreaming that may be taking place near the Seine, a Cameron government is not about to at last join France in uniting Europe around an anti-American pole of power. He readily accepts the political dangers his nuanced position will cause him in these polarizing times. As he says, "If you question the approach of the U.S. administration you are ‘anti-American.' If you support what the United States is doing, you are ‘America's poodle.'" Such a political straitjacket is poisonous in that it inhibits the freedom to maneuver that Cameron's skeptical-friendship approach depends on.

Essay Types: Essay