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WITH THEM OR AGAINST THEM? by Peter Unwin (Author and former diplomat)

July 10, 2007 6:13 PM

This article is based on a talk given at a meeting of the Lloyd George Society held in February 2003.

It is copyright and no part of it may be reproduced without the permission of the author or the Society. Mr Unwin updated his analysis of Anglo-American relations at the Lloyd George Society meeting held in February 2007, so the reader is asked to remember that these views were current just before the onset of the Iraq War.

For as long as I can remember, the British have been asking themselves where they belong. In the 1940s we clung to wartime glories as one of the 'Big Three' and in the fifties turned to the ambition of leading a global Commonwealth. By the 1960s we were talking about the rights and wrongs of a British deterrent and a continuing presence 'East of Suez'. In the seventies we got our teeth into European Community membership, and an existential debate about Britain and Europe has been going on ever since.

Throughout these decades, we boasted of a 'special relationship' with our friendly superpower. But increasingly - and fervently since 11 September 2001 - we have started asking ourselves more hard-headed questions about the Americans. If in the 20th Century they did more good than harm, are they now going to do more harm than good? So in this new century we have to answer George Bush's question: are we with them or against them?

Bush posed that question in the context of the campaign against terrorism, but I do not want to get involved in the rights and wrongs of that today. Still less do I want to enter into the arguments about war with Iraq. These are vital and topical questions, but we would lose ourselves in their day-to-day complexities. Similarly I want to keep away from detailed discussion of the rights and wrongs of the current American administration. My topic today is not terrorism, or Iraq, or George Bush. It is how we in Britain, and other countries similarly placed, should react to the fact of American pre-eminence. Do we want to be in the American empire or outside it? Do we want to help it order the world or go our own, separate way, either alone or in partnership with other nations? Do we support the primacy of the United States or the United Nations; Europe or North America? And in deciding all this do we see the global power of the United States as predominantly a good influence or a bad?

On the plus side of the argument, the United States stands for many good causes, freedom, human rights, open markets among them. The Americans have built the most dynamic and creative society on God's earth and spread its influence worldwide. America is the indispensable nation, without which many necessary things can never get done. It is powerful, in some lights all-powerful. It can do many things alone, but still, more often than not, feels more comfortable doing them with others. It wants us as an ally.

On the other side of the argument, the United States is too powerful, and uses its power selectively, irresponsibly and selfishly. It is in large part to blame for the animosity, even hatred, it arouses. It is undermining the global society we have built so laboriously since the end of the Second World War, and is putting in its place an arbitrary imperium, shaped essentially, by Washington's orders. We are no more than its stooges.

You can make a strong case for either of those views of the United States' role in the world. You can make a stronger one for an uneasy amalgam of the two. We have to live with the realities that underlie both views. In the words of Jean Baudrillard: 'America is powerful and original; America is violent and abominable. We should not seek to deny either of these aspects, nor reconcile them.'

Or one can put the matter more simply, in the words my mother used too often about my father. America is 'impossible to live with but impossible to live without.' Yet Britain can still choose how closely it wants to associate itself with that 'powerful, original, violent and abominable' superpower.

I have spent the last two years trying to work out where I stand on that question. In the end, I come down with many a hesitation in favour of distancing ourselves from the United States. My reasoning goes like this; you can pull it to pieces afterwards.

First, the nature of American society: it exhibits enormous qualities and terrible flaws. It is more attractive to individual Britons than any other country on earth. In many respects British society is steadily growing more like American. But in the end I cannot believe that Britain would be a happier place it if were drawn still more completely into America's orbit.

Second, as Lord Acton said, 'Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely'. The United States is closer to absolute power than Britain was at its heights in the 19th Century. I do not think we can entrust the world to the absolute will of a single superpower.

Third, there is the lesson of British history. In their wisdom, British statesmen fought from the 16th Century to the 20th to prevent Europe falling under the control of a single hostile or potentially hostile power. For Europe then read the world today, for Philip II, Louis X1V, Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin read a potentially hostile president in Washington. The American constitution is full of domestic checks and balances, thank God. The United States needs external checks and balances too.

Fourth, let us consider British interests. Ever since Churchill's time, we have seen our interests, as being best served by policies well nigh identical with Washington's. That view served us pretty well throughout the cold war, though it may have cost us entry at the right time into the European Community and a central role within it even to this day. Tony Blair seems as committed to that view as Winston Churchill ever was. Yet the divergence between American interests and British interests, American global views and British ones, is steadily widening. Look at policies towards the environment, human rights, global order, nuclear proliferation, and the world economy, the United Nations itself. British statesmen and diplomats are walking a tightrope of credibility when they so assiduously seek to minimise the differences between Whitehall and Washington. One day they will fall off.

Fifth, there is Britain's size. There is always a lot of whimsy and self-deception about the 'special relationship'. Even a caring and sharing United States tended to overwhelm a British partner in the despatch of day-to-day business. An assertive solipsistic United States convinced of its own exceptionalism will do so unthinkingly and uncaringly. And unchallenged absolute power will make America, like any of its predecessors as hegemonic powers, that much the more unthinking and uncaring about the concerns of others.

Lastly, what about British attitudes? There is about the British almost as much instinctive deference to Washington as there used to be to the House of Windsor. Such deference keeps the British in psychological leading strings. If we want to fulfil ourselves as adults we need to free ourselves from both those kinds of deference.

If you buy the argument so far, what ways do we have of distancing ourselves from American hegemony? They sound pretty mechanistic, but they are real for all that. Each depends on finding new attitudes and building up relationships to put into the balance beside our relationship with Washington.

The first point appeals to good old British pragmatism. It is that we must judge every American proposal open-mindedly on its merits. We will find ourselves in wholehearted agreement with some, perhaps most, American policies; and equally repelled by others. On each issue we should in private tell the Americans exactly where we stand. What we say in public will on some issues be constrained by other considerations. But our underlying aim should be to break, over time, with self-censorship, and with the presumption that we will almost always see the world through American eyes. In short we should put away some of the traditional assumptions of British foreign policy and be rather more like the French instead.

In so distancing ourselves from American assumptions we will find ourselves looking to that so-often so-unsatisfactory institution, the United Nations. With all its shortcomings, it represents the principles of universality, multilateralism and international equality, to be put into the balance against the idea of American exceptionalism, the practice of American unilateralism, and the fact of American power. The United Nations offers legitimacy. A central problem is to combine that legitimacy with operational effectiveness. A secondary problem will be to prevent the United States either turning away in disgust from an organisation it cannot control, or conversely seeking to bully it into acquiescence. But for British policy-makers the United Nations is as indispensable as the United States, and a necessary balance to it.

Next, the old adversaries - by almost every measure, Russia and China are vastly less attractive societies than the United States. Yet they exist, and they matter; and if you accept the argument so far you will see that they have interests in common with us in building a counter-balance to a triumphalist United States. Some time in the next 50 years China will emerge as an effective rival superpower. In the same period Russia will revive and re-emerge as a considerable world power. We should not let historical antipathies and present-day distaste prevent our co-operating with the Russians and the Chinese where the merits of a case require it.

Four years ago a senior British diplomat quietly muttered to me - an old colleague now out to grass - that in private we often had more difficulty nowadays in coping with Washington than with Moscow. To some one like me, who spent a whole official lifetime convinced that the KGB man was always the villain hiding being the arras, it was a revealing admission. And yet it had a long pedigree. 'We have no eternal allies', said Lord Palmerston, 'and no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.'

When we co-operate with our fellow-Europeans, by contrast, we will have less need to hold our noses. Our western European neighbours run societies that to some of us - certainly to me - seem more congenial than the United States. They are about our weight, not immeasurably more powerful than we are. As for influence, the European Union is already by some measures the equal of the United States. Its population is greater, its GNP as great, its share of world trade greater than that of the United States. Its official development assistance to the developing world is infinitely greater, its influence in trade and economic fora comparable with that of the Americans. Diplomatically and politically it will remain a pygmy by comparison with the United States until its members can bring themselves to act as one, either by effective co-operation or by further integration. Militarily it will never approach America's punching power, but it has the capacity, if it can generate the will, to play a more effective peacekeeping, nation-building role than the United States.

Its eastward enlargement, coming next year, will increase its potential but simultaneously increase the difficulty of bringing that potential to bear. Enlargement is desirable, and must be right, but how you make a union of 25 European states operationally effective is a problem to defeat the Wisdom of Solomon. Maybe the European constitutional convention will come up with suggestions to carry us forward. More cogently, if over the next decade we Europeans recognise the need to create a balanced transatlantic relationship in which Europe can answer America back we will find our minds concentrated wonderfully on finding ways to do so effectively.

Another grouping, which may come into its own, is the Commonwealth. It has always represented a remarkable gathering of the peoples of the earth. The problem is mobilising its strengths. I laboured for four years in the Commonwealth vineyard looking for ways to make it operationally more effective. In the end I was left with just two concepts on which to build. First, the Commonwealth as a benchmark - benchmark of democracy, governmental accountability, human rights, and economic transparency. Second, the Commonwealth as an organising instrument - a less formal, less hide-bound United Nations. Now I begin to see a third role for it, as a gathering of all the English-speaking nations except the United States, reaching into almost every corner of the globe, a force standing out against the threatened clash of civilisations.

None of these groupings can or should set itself on collision course with the United States. They cannot and should not challenge the Americans' hard power. But the members of each of them have their own views of the world and a right to be heard. Each of them has its share of that mysterious substance, 'soft power', a substance often more useful than cruise missiles and armoured divisions. It is made up of the legitimacy represented by sovereign states and hundreds of millions of people for whom they speak. It is made up too of partnerships, agreements, influence, and assistance to the less fortunate. It operates through diplomacy, personal, educational and cultural links, investment and development, human understanding. These are the means through which the relatively weak can assert themselves against the militarily strong, and help to build a truly multilateral world.

But before Britain or any other of America's allies, partners or friends can embark with conviction on the courses I have outlined we will have to stop accepting the United States on the American's own valuation. They believe that America is something different from the rest of the world community. 'A shining city on a hill' said one American president. 'A myriad points of light' said another. Since 11 September 2001 American exceptionalism has had a field day. Sometimes the chant 'United States' and the outrageous demand that Americans should be excluded from the remit of the International Criminal Court seem to have replaced rational political discourse in America. We need to challenge the American belief that the United States is a great global exception, with unique privileges of its own within global society. We have to convince the Americans and ourselves that they are just like other human beings, good and bad, wise and foolish, generous and selfish, altruistic and narcissistic. We must deal with them as equals, judging them on their merits, not on their pretensions.

A programme like this comes with a price tag. It risks weakening American strength and the resolve to use it in good causes. It will arouse disappointment, even anger in Washington. It will reduce our influence there, and our ability to argue against dangerous American policies. But I believe it responds to some manifest truths. British interests differ at many points from American interests. American power is dangerous as well as necessary. It is in nobody's interest - not even America's - to see the multilateral world we have so laboriously built up in the last half century replaced by an American global empire. And Britain, America's closest friend and some would say last friend, is uniquely placed to start the process of balancing American power with the influence of the rest of the world.