In recent months, a curious notion has gradually begun to take hold in the United States, a vague idea for a new basis on which American foreign policy can be conducted.
We might call it the Anglo Illusion.
The Anglo Illusion goes like this: Washington's military alliances are less important than they used to be. Instead of these formal alliances, the U.S. should from now on deal with the world in partnership with its true friends, the British and Australians.
Working as a triumvirate, so the illusion goes, these English-speaking nations can, where necessary, conduct military operations in dangerous parts of the world. Moreover, the U.S. can join with Britain to deal with Europe and use Australia to carry out its policies in East Asia. (And perhaps, so the Anglo Illusionists believe, Canada and New Zealand may sometimes help us out too.)
Speaking on PBS' "NewsHour" last week, a former Pentagon official, Jed Babbin, gave voice to a form of the Anglo Illusion. Asked whether Britain was the last ally of the U.S., he replied: "Britain is a very staunch ally. They are really the only country.... Well, I shouldn't say that. There are others. Australia, New Zealand, Canada, basically the old Commonwealth countries that are still willing to go pay a price in blood and treasure for freedom."
We're seeing the first clear demonstration of a new Anglo-based foreign policy in the current Iraq crisis. To be sure, eight European leaders this week signed a joint statement endorsing American policy. Yet when it comes to more tangible support, Britain and Australia have emerged as by far the strongest and most prominent partners.
The British are expected to contribute 30,000 troops to a Persian Gulf war, and Australia has dispatched 2,000 personnel along with F-18 warplanes.
When the U.S. held talks last week on postwar reconstruction of Iraq, the two other lead participants were Britain and Australia.
All of this extends beyond the historical "special relationship" between the U.S. and Britain. What we have, for the moment, is a new linkup, with military overtones, among three countries on three continents that share the English language.
The problem with an Anglo approach is that it's both a little sad and extremely unwise. An Anglo-based foreign policy suggests that we Americans are obsessed with our own language. (If so, then perhaps we're becoming more like the French.)
In the past, the U.S. has vehemently opposed the idea of dividing up the world in this fashion. During the first Bush administration, some Asian leaders wanted to form an organization for the Pacific that would have included only Asian governments and not the U.S., Australia, New Zealand or Canada. The U.S. and the other Anglo governments successfully fought off the proposal as implicitly racist.
As a matter of strategy, an Anglo approach to dealing with the world is shortsighted and unsustainable. Britain and Australia each has its own geography and its own interests. Whatever Britain's future relationship to Europe or Australia's to East Asia, both countries will be subject to a strong and growing tug from their neighbors. Indeed, they already are. The antiwar sentiments in London and Sydney today are far stronger than they are in Washington. Britain's close identification with the U.S. could diminish once Prime Minister Tony Blair is no longer in power.
The reality is that if the U.S. were to have increasingly antagonistic relations with other leading countries of Europe and East Asia, then it might well eventually find itself also at odds with Britain and Australia.
Twelve years ago, at the time of the Gulf War, American policy toward Iraq enjoyed widespread international support. If this time Washington's main partners are Britain and Australia, then a few years from now these two nations may not be with the U.S. either.
This is not automatically an argument against going to war against Iraq with Britain and Australia as our principal partners. It is, however, a warning against self-deception. Britain and Australia are of course wonderful nations, but we can't rely on them as a stable, long-term solution to our search for allies overseas.
In the long run, a U.S. foreign policy that relies primarily on our Anglo partners would really be only a way station on the road toward going it alone in the world. If we want to choose unilateralism, we should at least do so openly and honestly.
An Anglo-based foreign policy won't work and won't last.
Jim Mann is a former Times columnist and senior writer-in-residence at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.