November 18, 2016
About that time, in the early “60s, Dean Acheson, who had been Secretary of State in the Truman Administration, delivered a damning judgment. Britain, he said, had lost an Empire and not yet found a role. No mention there of any valued Special Relationship. He made it sound as if the United Kingdom was a lost sheep.
Nevertheless we persisted in the belief that we were America’s special friend. This wasn”t a complete delusion. Throughout the Cold War, Britain contributed more to the NATO alliance than any other member of the American-dominated coalition. Later we participated willingly, even eagerly, in the first Gulf War, in the campaign in Afghanistan, in the Kosovo war, and in the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. None of it did us much good, but it showed we were America’s faithful follower”its “chela” or even its jackal. Now, of course, with our defense spending cut, with our army smaller than at any time since the 18th century, our ability to make any military contribution is much reduced, and may even be negligible.
Yet our politicians will still cherish the idea of the Special Relationship even if we matter less to the U.S.A. than at any time in the past hundred years. It flatters our self-esteem because it allows us to pretend that we retain something of Great Power status and are able, as our politicians like to say, to “punch above our weight.” They are wrong, of course; we can punch only at our weight, which is a long way short of the heavyweight division. This is hard to accept. So we still talk as if we had an important role, as America’s dearest ally, in securing some sort of settlement in the Middle East, in Syria and Iraq, where we are actually irrelevant.
As we enter into uncharted territory post-Brexit, there will be more talk in London of the importance and value of the Special Relationship. Washington will indulge this; it does no harm to American interests. But they will give it only lip service at best. Mr. Trump will speak of his Scottish mother and his affection for Britain, but it won”t mean much. His attention will be on Beijing and Moscow, and he is more likely to seek a special relationship with Vladimir Putin than with Theresa May. So it’s time for us to stop preening, to look reality in the face, and to accept that we are deceiving ourselves, living a lie, if we suppose that we are America’s special friend and valued ally in Great Power politics. It’s time to cultivate our own modest garden.