The End of the British "Handling" of America

The End of the British "Handling" of America

Tony Blair’s exit from 10 Downing Street could mark a major shift in the nature of Anglo-American relations.

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 any, 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 what tangible results their 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 is 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 to 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 for 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 unable to point to any tangible benefit for British support for President Bush, Blair'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.

John C. Hulsman, Ph.D., is the president of John C. Hulsman Enterprises ( He is also a contributing editor to The National Interest. Along with Anatol Lieven, he authored Ethical Realism: A Vision For America's Role In The World, (New York: Random House, 2006). This is taken from a larger piece that will appear in the forthcoming issue of The National Interest.