The World : Britain Adjusts to Its New 'Special Relationship'

Martin Walker is U.S. bureau chief for Britain's The Guardian and author of "The Cold War: A History" (Henry Holt)

It is our own fault. We Brits have picked and worried at this old scab of the "special relationship" until President Bill Clinton mercifully stepped in to stop the bleeding and save us from our own foolish myths and self-inflicted wound.

In Bonn last week, Clinton dispatched the British concept of the Anglo-American partnership to the mists of the sentimental past, and embraced America's new intimacy with Germany. Quite right, too, from Clinton's point of view.

It is not just that financially and industrially, Britain is no longer even in the upper-middle classes of the global pecking order. It is that, with the end of the Cold War, the United States no longer needs the British Isles as an unsinkable aircraft carrier and provider of reliable diplomatic and military cannon fodder.

For the past 50 years, we have been America's white Gurkhas, loyal, gallant, little folk of quaint warlike ways, ready to do the bidding of the Yankee Sahib.

Atomic air bases and nuclear submarine facilities? At your disposal, dear boy.

Overflight rights to conduct President Ronald Reagan's diplomacy-by-airstrike? Don't bother to ask, old chap.

A usefully located British dependency in the West Indies to decant Haitian refugees away from U.S. shores? The Turks and Caicos will do nicely.

We did our military bit, and not only in the Gulf War, but also with the British Army on the Rhine, the armored divisions of which were the backbone of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's defenses on the North German plain.

In 1964, when Lyndon B. Johnson's new Administration tentatively suggested that some token British presence might be helpful in Vietnam, he was reminded that, after defeating the communist insurgency in Malaya, and still fighting a low-intensity war in Borneo, Britain had more troops in Southeast Asia than the United States did.

We tried hard to please, but the game is up. One sure sign is on CNN daily. In the currency-news roundup of the state of the dollar, the yen and deutsche mark are the currencies that matter. The pound sterling has gone the way of the equally devalued Sterling, the last British family car we tried to market in the States.

We have gone through a series of self-deluding metaphors to protect and comfort ourselves against the cold reality of our declining status in American eyes.

Fifty years ago, when John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White drew up the blueprint for the postwar financial order at Bretton Woods, the dollar and the pound sterling assumed equal status as the world's two reserve currencies.

More than 30 years ago, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan mused about our being Greeks to the American Romans, the civilized and cultured slaves who really ran the Empire.

Then, in that last and gloriously flaring supernova of the old alliance--as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher went arm-in-arm against the Evil Empire--the image changed. We became the wise and keen-eyed Tonto to the American Lone Ranger, with our special forces always ready to creep stealthily through some foreign undergrowth, and our diplomacy available to explain the Lone Ranger's brusque ways to wary tribesmen.

The most compelling image, however, has always been of the Americans as Don Quixote, with Britain as plump little Sancho Panza, trotting loyally alongside, occasionally plucking fretfully at his master's sleeve to suggest that some windmills are not for tilting.

But now that the Russians have taken the common enemy away, and Don Quixote has returned to the rickety ancestral home to consider domestic renovations, Sancho Panza is surplus to requirements.

Matters of such gravity concerning the national interest go far beyond any personal coolness in the relations between Clinton and Prime Minister John Major. Though the low esteem in which British interests are held was signaled by the visa granted to Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams earlier this year, it is the underlying relations of states rather than surface bickerings of elected and temporary leaders that is driving the U.S. policy.

And if Sancho Panza has any sense, he will realize Clinton has done him a favor, sluicing away the befogging illusions of the past with a bracing douche of reality.

Clinton's embrace of Germany in a "truly unique relationship" was rooted in his belief that a fully integrated Europe is the crucial institution to stabilize the traditionally turbulent old Continent.

As the economic powerhouse of that Europe, and the nation most committed to the investments and trade that can draw Eastern Europe into the prosperity of the West, Germany is the essential vehicle for Clinton's grand design.

As the grumpily recalcitrant island that tries to stall the process of European integration, Britain is not only less and less relevant to U.S. interests, but is starting to antagonize them.

With its strategic utility to the United States declining, Britain has found a new niche, living like a parasite off the long equivocation that has bedeviled America's policies toward Europe. Unsure whether it feared a rich united Europe as a trade and possible strategic rival, or desired it as stabilizing democratic grouping to share the burdens of global management, the United States, under Clinton, has finally made up its mind.

The German friendship is the path to the kind of Europe America now wants. The traditional special relationship with Britain would perpetuate U.S. dithering, an Anglo-Saxon mutual insurance policy against a Europe that might one day grow into a Frankenstein monster.

Under their breath, the British have a phrase for this, and at least one minister has been forced to resign for referring to "the Fourth Reich" in public. Thatcher, most certainly, was against it and, like so many of her countrymen locked in mystic memories of D-day, trusted too much and too long in U.S. devotion.

The little Englanders are right to say the emerging Europe will be a German-led Fourth Reich. But they are thumpingly wrong to assume this will echo the Third one. The point about the new Europe is that it will be what all of us, British and French, Italians and Spaniards, Greeks and, probably soon, Finns and Swedes, will make of it.

We all understand the need to tame the historic German beast. We also understand the need to provide a European answer to the German question.

And now, at last, America's white Gurkhas have been given their liberty, set free by Clinton's unsentimental decision to squash the old illusion, and force us to face the new challenge. Not only will we be of more use to America that way, we will be more use to ourselves and to our fellow Europeans.

A generation ago, Dean Acheson warned that Britain had "lost an empire, and not yet found a role." Now we have one: to ensure that Europe's Fourth Reich is equally what the French can see as an entente cordiale, the Brits embrace as a commonwealth, the Italians join as a Risorgimento and, perhaps, even one day what the Russians call semya, a family.

If we Brits can finally put aside the humiliating role of Sancho Panza, and aspire again to the leading role of Don Quixote in building such a Europe, that is a windmill worth a tilt. And if Brits and Americans can join in that adventure, that will be the real triumph of a special relationship that has, in all other respects, outlived its usefulness.*

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