Repeating British Mistakes

March 1, 1995 Topic: Great Powers Tags: MuslimSuperpowerYugoslavia

Repeating British Mistakes

Mini Teaser: If the United States makes the same mistake that the British did, not only will U.S. interests be set back, but a great opportunity to determine the whole character of the post-Cold War era will be lost.

by Author(s): Jonathan Clarke

Now that we have passed the second anniversary of foreign policy
under the Clinton administration, critics have sated themselves on
easy pickings. But more recently a new direction has crept into view,
as commentators turn away from well-practiced lambast in favor of
more sympathetic attempts to explore--or even to validate--the
underlying patterns beneath the surface chaos. The tentative
indications of a more assured grasp of national priorities in the
White House in early 1995, notably the quietly effective diplomacy
with regard to North Korea and Vietnam, further encourage erstwhile
critics to ponder whether a new foreign policy rationale is emerging.

This revisionist approach is sure to produce any number of
interesting theories as to why foreign policy seems to be less
accident prone, but one that does seem worth further investigation is
that, in terms of operational practicality, post-Cold War experience
is teaching that American foreign policy succeeds best when its
practitioners acknowledge--whether explicitly or implicitly--that
American power is a much more ambiguous quantity today than it was
during the Cold War. An aggressively robust foreign policy is
impossible when both congressional and popular opinion are
steadfastly opposed to voting the resources or tolerating the
casualties that render such a policy sustainable. Even when an
operation is apparently progressing well or is of vital importance to
the United States--as in Haiti or over Mexico--the first instinct on
Capitol Hill is to set a date for termination or to bicker over the
details. Given the absence of foreign policy focus in the November
1994 election and subsequent Republican concentration on domestic
policy, the change of party control does not appear likely to
overturn the fundamental premise that resources and stamina for
foreign policy will continue to be meager--in point of fact, they may
have to be reduced even further, if a balanced budget is indeed to be
achieved early in the next century.

The good news is that, properly handled, this does not necessarily
matter very much. The world is a much friendlier place. The bad news
is that all too many of those who operate the levers of foreign
policy--including not only government officials but journalists,
commentators, think-tankers, academics, and lobbyists--stubbornly
continue to resist making the necessary psychological adjustment to
these new conditions. They encounter great difficulty in discarding
the habits of undiscriminating global engagement formed while
confronting--supremely successfully let it be said--the daunting
challenges of the Cold War. Unfortunately, their reluctance to accept
change may cause the inevitable reordering of America's role in the
world to be transformed from a controlled process in which American
influence is retained into an out-of-control, fully-fledged decline.

To speak of "decline" is still not pukka or kosher within the foreign
policy elite, any more than it was in 1987 when Paul Kennedy's Rise
and Fall of the Great Powers touched a raw nerve in the American body
politic, acting like a gratuitous injury to a great athlete, a
memento mori that America's best playing days might be behind it. So
it is necessary to tip-toe around this concept. Nonetheless, the case
can be made that, through its crucial psychological failure to come
to terms with the sharp reduction in the resources available for
foreign policy projects, this same foreign policy elite has failed to
meet the challenge of guiding the nation through the current
transition to a post-superpower age. Refusing to acknowledge
intellectually and emotionally that times have changed, they persist
in over-promising what they cannot deliver--a habit that has caused
endless chaos and poor policy choices as rhetorical excesses run
ahead of hard reality.

In his book Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger describes the United States as
"an island off the shores of the large landmass of Eurasia." This
brings to mind another offshore island where another foreign policy
elite of a similar temperament and outlook to their modern American
counterparts made the same mistake of preferring prestige over
substance in the wake of its greatest triumph in war. The story is
well-known, but may still be worth retelling today--not as a
straight-line predictor of what will happen in the United States but
as a cautionary tale of how foreign policy miscalculations can exact
harsh penalties on domestic welfare.

Some thirty years ago, Dean Acheson made his famous remark about the
British--for it is, of course, of them that we are speaking--as
having lost an empire and being unable to find a role. Today, the
United States finds itself in a similar predicament. It too has
"lost" an empire--the Soviet Union, opposition to which provided the
defining mold for three generations of policy-makers. Civilized
people everywhere have good reason to be grateful for the fortitude
of American purpose displayed during this period. Gratitude, however,
cannot disguise the fact that, with their mission accomplished,
today's Americans, like the British before them, are struggling to
find a new role.

The British struggle took many false turns and even today the deep
ideological fissures in the ruling Conservative party over European
policy show that it is far from fully resolved. Unfortunately, there
are disquieting signs that American officials--aided and abetted by
the wider foreign policy community--seem inclined to repeat the
central British failure to bring resources and aspirations into a
sustainable equilibrium.

The Folly of Make-Believe

If their status as two offshore islands were their only common
characteristic, Britain and America would have little to learn from
each other. They are very different countries and the history of one
does not transfer automatically to the other. In terms of raw
statistics of military power, wealth, size, and population--the
variables populating the equations of systems analysts--any
comparison between Britain and the United States seems risible.

With regard to foreign policy attitudes, however, the parallels are
striking. The psychological culture of the foreign policy elites in
London in the immediate aftermath to World War II and in Washington
in the wake of the Cold War triumph are notably close. Selwyn Lloyd,
foreign secretary at the time of the 1956 Suez debacle, has portrayed
the British foreign policy debate in the 1940s and 1950s in terms
very similar to those now playing out in the United States: whereas
in Britain the conservatives accused the Labourites of "scuttling" on
imperial responsibilities, in this country Republicans accuse
Democrats of abandoning "leadership" and exempt defense spending from
the budget knife; whereas British socialists set out in the 1950s to
bestow their vision of good governance on the nations emerging from
colonization, today's American liberals talk of "democratic
enlargement" and the reconstruction of "failed states." At a remove
of half a century, the British would immediately empathize with their
American colleagues in their struggles to reinvent their global roles.

The British mistake--and the implicit warning for the United States
today--lay in choosing to play a game of diplomatic make-believe,
fooling the British themselves and the rest of the world for the best
part of fifty years. Even when in 1947 the British were informing the
Americans that they would no longer be able to sustain their position
in Greece and Turkey--in retrospect the defining moment in British
postwar diplomatic history--they were preening themselves on their
superior brain power, as in the well-known doggerel:

"In Washington Lord Halifax
Once whispered to Lord Keynes,
It's true they have the money bags,
But we have all the brains."

Prime Minister Harold Macmillan voiced this attitude in his smug
remark that "we are Greeks in their American empire," adding--after
some disparaging comments on American culture--that the British
should run this empire as "the Greeks ran the operations of the
Emperor Claudius." In a slightly different way, Margaret Thatcher
made the same point in her memoirs when she wrote that the Gulf War
proved that "the ties of blood, language, culture, and values which
bound Britain and America were the only firm basis for U.S. policy in
the West."

This assumption of superiority at the peculiarly British style of
diplomacy to which it gave rise--at once arrogant and indigent--has
intensely irritated some of those who have encountered it: German
Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, for example, once compared Britain to "a
rich man who has lost all his property, but does not realize it." He
characterized British foreign policy as "one long fiddle."

Many more, however, have made a virtue out of it. Foreign Secretary
Douglas Hurd takes delight in declaring that Britain "punches above
its weight" in international diplomacy. When Iraqi tanks rolled
toward Kuwait in October 1994, he hurried out to the Gulf (ignoring
the debate on Europe at the Conservative party conference that
carried far greater long-term importance for British interests) and
demanded that the tanks turn back, for all the world as if Britain
were the managing partner of the Gulf coalition.

The British sleight of hand has gained many admirers in this country.
Despite the fact that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's
anti-European histrionics robbed Britain of a potential leadership
role in Brussels, in the United States she remains probably the most
admired British politician for what is seen as her gutsy defiance of
the world's dictators. But whether that defiance was always well
considered and necessary in terms of core British interests is
another matter.

Essay Types: Essay