The special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom is a political creation that reflects underlying realities. To assess the future of that relationship, and how the EU will affect it, we need to know how it began.
For the relationship to come into being, the U.K. and the U.S. had to meet two necessary but not sufficient conditions. The fate of the relationship rests on whether or not those two underlying conditions endure.
First, the U.K. had to come to believe that it could not defend its worldwide interests entirely on its own, and yet that it still had a worldwide role to play.
The Great Rapprochement of the late 19th century between the U.S. and the U.K., when the special relationship began, was fundamentally a matter of the U.K. recognizing that its interests could be defended more effectively in cooperation with the U.S. than with any other nation.
Of course, U.S. and U.K. interests were not identical: Many scholars have emphasized the fractiousness of the accommodation. But the special relationship expanded as the gap between the U.K.’s recognized interests and its power grew, in an era when the U.K. did definitely believe it had a worldwide role.
The second condition is simple: The U.S. had to grow up.
For most of the era between 1776 and 1941, the U.S. was, for historical reasons that had increasingly little to do with reality, the standoffish partner in the Anglo-American relationship. There was, of course, anti-Americanism in the U.K., more often on the right than the left, but American Anglophobia was far more powerful. Nor did it disappear in 1941.
When the American people were surveyed in 1944, of the one-third who were dissatisfied with the extent of cooperation among the Big Three, 54 percent blamed the U.K. while only 18 percent blamed the USSR. Not until the late 1950s did Anglophobia cease to be a major factor in U.S. political life.
Today, when the U.K. stands second only behind Canada as the foreign nation that Americans like best, this is a difficult fact to remember, which is why it is tempting to treat this second condition as of strictly historical interest. But it is not yet a matter for history, because it indicates that something important has changed.
Since 1776, the fate of the Anglo-American relationship has usually rested in the hands of the United States, because it was U.S. sentiments that established the limits of the possible.
But now, precisely because U.S. views of the U.K. are reliably positive, the fate of that relationship rests—for the first time ever—fundamentally in the hands of the U.K. There are no votes to be won in the U.S. by criticizing the U.K. There are, however, votes to be won in the U.K. by criticizing the U.S. Of course, public opinion can be strongly negative (or positive) and yet not be salient: The beliefs are felt, but not felt often enough to matter. But just as it formerly did in the U.S., public opinion in Britain now determines the limits of the possible for the special relationship.
But the British public also limits what is possible where the EU is concerned. A 2014 YouGov poll found that only 17 percent of the British public identified itself as strongly European. The level of European identification in France was twice as high, even though half the French public wants to leave the EU.
British dissatisfaction is not limited to Europe: A 2008 poll found that British views of many Western or Western-allied foreign nations—India, Japan, and Germany—were strongly negative or barely positive. The only significant exceptions were Australia, Sweden, and Ireland. This poll found that the U.S. was about as popular in the U.K. as Germany, which, given both the Blitz and various World Cups, is remarkable.
In short, U.K. attitudes toward the U.S. and the EU, while complicated, are not new: They reflect a traditional bloody-mindedness about foreigners. But they also reflect deeply held beliefs about Britain’s national identity, beliefs that are (or at least were) fundamentally liberal. It is these beliefs that shaped, and will continue to shape, the U.K.’s approach to its world role, the special relationship, and its relations with Europe—or, rather, with the political entity known as the European Union.
The British understanding of its world role, and its national identity, was always and uniquely political. In the 19th century, a common quip was there were five perfect institutions in the world: the Italian papacy, the Russian ballet, the French opera, the German general staff—and the British Parliament. Joseph Chamberlain, that renegade radical, put it most concisely when he described the British as a “great governing race.” The most destructive thing to happen to Britain in the 20th century was Britain’s steady loss of its faith in the fact that, whatever others were good at, it was good at governing.
But though this faith has been damaged, it has not been destroyed. It is why the British public is so Euroskeptic: Precisely because the parliament in Westminster was central to the making of Britain’s identity as a liberal nation and its world role, the British public is particularly sensitive to anything that subordinates Westminster (even as it views Westminster itself with skepticism). British politicians have persistently sought to lead in the EU, to find a new world role through the EU, and to paper over the EU’s implications for Westminster precisely because they recognize the potency of this belief, which they to an extent share.
One would think, given Britain’s failure since 1996 to win a vote in the Council of Ministers—it has gone zero for 55, an unparalleled record of futility for a nation with pretensions to leadership—these delusions would collapse. But the delusions are durable in part because the government of the day often finds it convenient to feed them. Recently, for example, the Cameron government made noises about renegotiating EU rules on the free movement of people, only to be told by Germany that this was “not negotiable.” So much for that.
The persistent tensions between the U.K. and the EU are often described as those of an awkward partnership. But this is teleology, not history. The problem is that, for contingent reasons, the EU evolved in a way that was not easily compatible either with Britain’s worldwide interests or its national identity. That has not stopped postwar U.S. administrations from cheerleading for the EU. The Obama administration has stuck to that script; starting with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s assertion in 2009 that political integration is “in Europe’s interest and I believe that [it] is in the United States’ interests because we want a stronger Europe,” this administration has made its preferences clear.
But just because a policy is traditional does not mean it is wise—or good for the special relationship. Since 1945, there have been two schools of thought in the U.S. on European integration. Atlanticists believed a politically united Europe would be a better worldwide ally for the U.S., while Europeanists believed that such a Europe would be able to take care of its own affairs more effectively and therefore require less expensive U.S. support. The assumption of both schools was that a united Europe would be a more secure and prosperous one, and both schools accepted that, for political and economic reasons, America’s aims in Europe would be more likely to be realized if Britain were included in political Europe.
The problem with the U.S. policy is that it has not worked. The parlous state of European defense spending is well known; the regular, bipartisan cajoling of U.S. defense secretaries seeking to boost European spending has achieved nothing, and will continue to achieve nothing. But as depressing as this is, security is the happy part of the European picture. The unhappy part is the economy: Far from making Europe wealthier, the cause of saving the euro is deliberately making it poorer.
Going forward, this means slower European growth (which must translate into even less influence, less defense spending, and a faster U.S. pivot to Asia) and further and even more serious strain on the U.K.-EU relationship, as the EU seeks to move into the citadel of national finance that has until now remained largely the province of the nation states. In short, the U.S. vision was that the EU would provide greater European security and prosperity. But as the drive for political unity has overtaken economic sanity, it has done the reverse.
Even without this pressure for deeper integration, the U.K.-EU relationship will never rest easy. The fundamental incompatibility between the EU’s supranational vision of European interests and Britain’s worldwide interests and political culture can to an extent be managed, but cannot be resolved. Nor is there an easy escape in a referendum on the U.K.’s membership of the EU. The outcomes of both the Alternative Vote and Scottish referendums imply that the U.K. has a bias in favor of the status quo, but it is one thing to vote for the status quo, and entirely another to rest content with it. For the U.K., apart from everything else, the EU will always symbolize not postwar renewal, as it plausibly does for Germany, but national decline, and that is simply never going to be popular.
The U.K. has often understood its role in the EU as being the bridge between the U.S. and the EU. But the lands at either end of the bridge are moving, and the U.K. will find that role steadily more challenging as the U.S. looks more to Asia—which, the vicissitudes of the Obama administration aside, it will do—and as the EU focuses on its own internal rescue project in ways that will be fundamentally unacceptable to the U.K. The idea that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership can replace the deep and broad structures of U.S.-European cooperation that were built during the Cold War, with NATO at their head, is a fantasy, and the idea that the U.K. can lead the EU through TTIP is more fantastic still.
Precisely because the U.S. is so reliably friendly to the U.K., the fate of the special relationship today rests with the U.K. And the fundamental problem with the relationship is that, if it is to endure, the U.K. needs to have a domestic political culture that is expansive and optimistic—in other words, traditionally liberal, because it was liberalism that created the U.K.’s understanding of its world role. But the popular bias in favor of the status quo, the establishment’s horror at the prospect of exiting the EU, and the difficulties the U.K. faced in sustaining even the modest “austerity” of the last five years imply that the U.K.’s political culture is neither expansive nor optimistic. Simply put, the U.K. is losing its liberalism.
The U.K. still has world interests, and public support for Britain’s world role remains strong in theory. But Britain lacks the willingness to play that role in practice—and if there is no world role, there is no special relationship. By the same token, the EU is a direct assault on Westminster’s sovereignty, and indeed on British democracy, so it is fundamentally problematic both for British national identity and, ultimately, for the existence of independent British policies in any realm. The result: the U.K. is alienated both from the EU and increasingly from the U.S.; there is grumpy dissatisfaction with all the available alternatives; and foreign and defense policy disappear as serious issues in British politics.
There have been vicissitudes in the special relationship before, and the depth of Anglo-American ties, both official and private, is easy to underrate. But in all previous vicissitudes, the U.K. had a greater willingness to play a world role, and the EU could be understood as an act of postwar, expansive, optimistic reassertion, not as an essentially defensive, inward-looking bulwark against a changing world. If the special relationship is to endure, especially in the context of EU, it can do so only if it finds political leaders that cherish the history that created the ties that still bind Great Britain and the United States.
Originally published in The American Interest