In the midst of the furor over Syria, the significance of a recent interview by the new U.S. ambassador to Britain has gone largely unremarked, except by my colleague Nile Gardiner. As he notes, Ambassador Matthew Barzun – picked for London because he was President Obama’s chief fund-raiser – has barely been on the job for a week, and is already lecturing Britain about how badly the U.S. wants it to stay in the European Union. Quoth the Ambassador:
“We would benefit by a really strong UK voice in a strong EU,” he says. Citing Obama’s stated aim to make the world “more peaceful, more prosperous, more just,” he adds: “Europe is the first place we turn for that. We like a cohesive, strong Europe that is working with us around the world.”
Of course, as I noted last January, these sorts of hectoring American interventions in British politics tend to be profoundly counter-productive, not least because they tend to encourage those who couple their dislike of the EU with suspicion of the U.S. But from this latest outburst, I draw several lessons. First, Amb. Barzun is good at learning his lines: his predecessor in fund-raising and America-representing, Louis Susman, repeatedly sang from exactly the same song sheet. Second, the rise of Eurosceptism in Britain does genuinely have the State Department worried. If it didn’t, the choir wouldn’t sing so insistently and obnoxiously. To which I say: keep up the good work, Eurosceptics all.
And third, the Administration really has no idea what it wants, or how to get it. Which is where the Commons vote on Syria comes in. Traditionally – i.e., during the Cold War – the U.S. wanted Britain in the EEC (as it then was) because it feared that, without British influence, the EEC would lean towards political neutralism (West Germany, or, later, de Gaulle’s France) and protectionism (France). By shifting back and forth between Europe’s major powers, and gathering the smaller ones together, it was thought, Britain could hold the balance. It wasn’t just the Americans who believed this: Harold Macmillan did too.
But that Europe is not this Europe. It’s difficult imagining the EU going protectionist, if only because it’s not in Germany’s interest. On the other hand, it’s extremely easy to imagine the EU encouraging others to adopt their high-tax and high-regulation approach in order to improve the relative worldwide competitiveness of the burdened European economies, or imposing new taxes – like the financial transaction tax – that would seek to reduce the burden Germany carries in supporting the Euro by shifting it onto the City. None of these things is in the British or the U.S. interest but because the balance inside the EU is no more, it’s hard to see Britain being able to stop them, if Germany wants the EU to carry them through. Britain will, at best, get an opt-out, and even that will be under relentless pressure from Brussels.
By the same token, much of Europe is already broadly neutralist. France is willing to intervene in places that were formerly part of the French colonial sphere – West Africa and the Levant – but is otherwise unsupportive of military action. Germany is unsupportive, period. And most of the others have run their militaries down so far that it barely matters what they do. There is simply no likelihood that British leadership is going to turn the EU into a genuinely trans-Atlantic organization that solidly backs NATO and contains countries that spend even NATO’s supposed two percent minimum of GDP on defense. It is regrettably much more likely that the EU will pull Britain even further down the neutralist road.
The Commons vote on Syria illustrates this all too clearly. I don’t subscribe to the view – expressed by Roger Cohen, among many others – that the Commons vote “fatally hit the special relationship.” After all, the U.S. and Britain have differed profoundly over other, far more significant, conflicts in the past – Suez and Vietnam come to mind. And since it is difficult to know exactly what President Obama believes he is achieving with his Syria policy – if he has anything substantive in mind at all – I suspect that the Syria vote, per se, will be the merest blip on the Anglo-American radar. The problem is not Syria. It is much deeper.
First, the Commons debate devoted a wildly disproportionate amount of attention to the legalities and moralities of the issue compared to the amount of time it spent on practicalities. To put it harshly: what does it matter if Britain opens hostilities with Syria? It can fire a very limited number of cruise missiles, and that is about it. Of course there are intelligence and surveillance assets, but one presumes they are in use already. One threat to the Special Relationship is the fact that the Commons has acquiesced in, and even welcomed, a succession of defense cuts that have now continued for over twenty years. Bluntly, Britain can do little more than provide diplomatic top-cover for the United States. That is not insignificant, and the Special Relationship is about a lot more than military cooperation. But it does matter.
Second, the Commons vote showed all too clearly that Tony Blair’s mission to transform the Labour Party – and the entire European left – has ended in complete failure. The Tuesday before the vote, Blair published a heartfelt plea in The Times in support of British intervention. It made no difference at all. In the debate, Jack Straw claimed that “Iraq has not, however, meant that the British public or, still less, this House have become pacifist.” Well, if you demand a U.N. Security Council authorization before you engage in military action, yes, in fact, it does mean you have become pacifist, because you are almost never going to get such an authorization. The 33 Labour rebels on the Falklands, the 55 on Kuwait in 1991, and the 139 rebels on Iraq in 2003 have now become (under Ed Miliband’s leadership, admittedly) virtually the entire party. It is a party that now looks almost completely European.
Philip Crowley and Mark Stuart argued in 2011 that “the size of Labour opposition to military intervention has been in steady decline for more than two decades” -- i.e., since Kuwait. Even in 2011, given Iraq, that was a hard argument to sustain. It is even harder now. Labour’s virtually unanimous support for Kosovo looks more and more like the exception to the rule. And while I don’t agree with Cohen that the vote marks the end of the Special Relationship, I do agree that it was, as he puts it, “a very European vote.” So, presuming that the Obama Administration badly wanted Cameron to win the vote, why is it pushing Britain ever deeper into the European Union, which is bound over the long run to exacerbate all the tendencies that helped to lose this vote? What plausible basis is there for believing that Britain will create a “cohesive, strong Europe” when all the European tendencies in British politics are creating a weaker Britain?
It is easy to claim, as Cohen does, that this vote is merely a reaction to Iraq. There is some truth in this. But we might remember back to September 13, 2001, when the then-U.S. Ambassador to Britain, Philip Lader, was slow-clapped on Question Time as audience members blamed the U.S. for the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In other words, the history of the left’s suspicion of the U.S. did not begin in 2003 (and those suspicions have been reinforced by the litany of supposed U.S. sins that Cohen lovingly, and piously, recounts – as though such recountings are not themselves part of the Anglo-American problem that Cohen claims to regret.) The vote on Syria reflects – yes – Iraq, as well as a simmering Tory dislike of the Prime Minister and justified concerns that limited missile strikes against the Assad regime are a spastic reaction, not a strategy.
But it also reflects an antipathy towards the U.S. that arose in both Europe and Britain long before Iraq, and which 9/11 and Tony Blair’s efforts to remake Labour into a party of muscular international liberalism only partially erased. As that Blairite wave has receded, the British left has moved back closer in line to the tendencies of Europe. The U.S. pressure on Britain to stay in the E.U. is only going to give ideological and practical encouragement to those tendencies, and make it even harder for the government of the day to win the vote on the next crisis – when the case for action in alliance with the U.S. may be much better than it is in Syria today. And if Britain lacks both the way and the will to act, the Special Relationship will indeed be much diminished.
In the long run, the U.S. cannot have both a Britain that is deeply committed to the EU and a Britain that is deeply committed to a broad alliance with the U.S. This administration’s policy on Syria is incoherent, but no more so than its policy towards Britain and the EU.
Dr. Ted R. Bromund is the Margaret Thatcher Senior Research Fellow in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom in the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. He joined Heritage in 2008 after a decade as the Associate Director of International Security Studies at Yale University, a research and teaching center dedicated to diplomatic, military and strategic history, and grand strategy.