The Breakup

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Niall Ferguson is professor of history at Harvard University and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford. His latest book is "Colossus: The Price of America's Empire."

On numerous occasions, Sen. John F. Kerry has claimed that, if elected, he could persuade unspecified allies to assist the United States in Iraq. These allies play a crucial role in Kerry’s plan for the country. They allow him to say he can reduce U.S. commitments without leaving Iraq to self-destruct.

But who are these white knights waiting to ride to the rescue of a more internationally minded president?

The answer is: er, pass.

If Kerry seriously thinks he could induce any of the world’s major military powers (or indeed any of its minor ones) to bail the U.S. out in Iraq, he is deluding himself. There is absolutely zero chance of (to name the obvious candidates) either France or Germany changing its stance of unqualified opposition to last year’s invasion and thinly veiled indifference to this year’s insurgency.


The leaders of the countries that stood aside when Saddam Hussein was overthrown have one obvious reason for staying on the sidelines. They have no desire to pay the domestic political price currently being paid by the leaders of the countries that gave President Bush their support.

French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder are not popular politicians. But they are still in power. If they had backed the invasion of Iraq, they would surely not be. A backlash against Spanish support for the war contributed to the downfall of Jose Maria Aznar in March. Leszek Miller, who took Poland into the war, resigned in May. And John Howard is in a tight contest in Australia.

If Italy were a properly functioning democracy, rather than a docile subsidiary of its prime minister’s media empire, Silvio Berlusconi too would be under pressure. Most striking of all, Iraq has permanently tarnished the reputation of Prime Minister Tony Blair in the eyes of British voters. The erstwhile golden boy of European politics came close to quitting this summer. With every passing day, it becomes harder to imagine him serving another full term as prime minister.

The irony is that if Kerry were to be elected, he might quickly find himself even more isolated than Bush has been because the most important of Washington’s traditional alliances -- the “special relationship” with Britain -- has been brought to the point of collapse by Blair’s backing of Bush’s policy toward Iraq.

As dramatized by the British playwright David Hare in “Stuff Happens,” Bush and Blair are players in a Shakespearean tragedy. Somewhat unexpectedly, Bush turns out to be the devious Iago to Blair’s naive Othello. The victim is not a woman, however. The victim is Britain -- lured into a war that a large majority of British voters now regard as unjust and unnecessary.

The question is worth pondering: What exactly has Britain gained -- besides applause in Washington and opprobrium everywhere else -- from Blair’s uncritical support of the Bush administration’s Middle Eastern policy?


Whenever I pose this question in Britain, the positive answers have one thing in common: They come from members of professional elites. Military men believe in the special relationship, especially those who have some experience in intelligence operations. Bankers believe in it, especially those who work for bulge-bracket Wall Street firms. And some academics still believe in it, especially those (here I have firsthand experience) recently lured away from Oxford or Cambridge by their more generously endowed Ivy League competitors.

These institutional links across the Atlantic are not wholly asymmetrical; the brighter sort of Brit generally finds himself treated with a measure of respect, rather than as a member of a helot race. In short: Show me the people flying first-class across the Atlantic and I will show you the special relationship.

Yet the national interests of the United States and the United Kingdom have been divergent for many decades. After 1945, the U.S. was slow to appreciate the hazards of premature decolonization -- in particular, that the Soviets might have more to offer Third World nationalists than it did. The British, for their part, were almost equally slow to grasp that reliance on the U.S. for military technology would swiftly lead to dependence.

It was precisely the unreliability of the U.S. -- not only as an ally but also as an export market -- that gradually convinced Britain’s political elite that it must abandon the Churchillian dream of a bilateral Atlantic partnership in favor of a new special relationship (in the first instance, economic) with the signatories of the Treaty of Rome. From 1973, Britain ceased to have an independent trade policy, removing the entire field of commerce from the realm of bilateral Anglo-American relations.

Finally, as the slow grind of detente gave way to the breakneck disarmament of the Mikhail Gorbachev years, the last compelling incentive for Anglo-American solidarity -- the Soviet menace -- fell away. With the benefit of hindsight, the political romance between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher was nothing more than a flicker of a dying flame.

By 1990, nothing geopolitically meaningful remained of the special relationship. As a result, there was a compelling logic to the European orientation of British foreign policy under John Major’s government. With light hearts, he and his ministers accepted Britain’s post-imperial destiny to be “at the heart of Europe.”


In this context, Blair’s fervid Atlanticism marks a discontinuity. It makes sense partly as a backlash against the dismal failures of Major’s European strategy, especially its hopelessly miscalculated responses to the breakup of Yugoslavia. It was Blair’s conversion to the U.S. view of the Balkan problem -- Slobodan Milosevic -- that led him to support war against Serbia in 1999. And it was the success of that war, opposed as it was by so many of Blair’s critics on both the left and the right, that led him to favor wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The road to Baghdad led from Pristina via Kabul.

Religion is the other bond between Bush and Blair. The born-again Christian and the High Church Anglican share a strong belief that war is not just an instrument of policy but also of morality -- a weapon to be used by the forces of righteousness against wicked dictators like Hussein. The trouble is, although a majority of Americans are receptive to what might be called a faith-based foreign policy, few Britons are. Americans are still a deeply Christian people. The British ceased to be some time ago.

This is just one aspect of a fundamental divergence in popular culture that increasingly makes the special relationship. Perhaps nothing illustrates more clearly how European the British are becoming than their attitudes to U.S. politics. Asked in a recent poll to choose between the two candidates for the presidency, 47% favored Kerry, compared with 16% for Bush -- at a time when the president was between 5 and 10 percentage points ahead in U.S. polls. On the legitimacy of the Iraq war, too, the British public is now closer to Continental opinion than to American.

All this suggests that Blair’s Atlanticism may represent the special relationship’s last gasp. For a strategic partnership needs more to sustain itself than an affinity between the principals and the self-interest of a few professional elites. It requires a congruence of national interests. It also needs some convergence of popular attitudes.

If the special relationship were a transatlantic flight, the Americans would be in the cockpit. The British would be the sleeping passengers. Sooner or later -- even if Kerry makes it to the White House -- British foreign policy is going to wake up.