The American-British relationship is a contingency. Despite appearances of being firm, it is subject to revaluation and remodelling. The new British Prime Minister is no exception to this. Your allies once burned the Library of Congress (perhaps with sufficient cause), and used American power as a shield to consolidate an empire. The Anglophones may be, as Winston Churchill suggested in his A History of the English-Speaking Peoples bound by the same language and cultural ties. But this is hardly an insurance against disagreements.
A historical précis may be useful. Rudyard Kipling famously extolled a white man’s burden he hoped Americans would share; Theodore Roosevelt found much in common with the empire-building Cecil Rhodes, sharing a common dislike for the darker races. But another, somewhat more bristling side of the relationship was never far away. Historian Edward P. Crapol on economic nationalism (see his America for Americans) suggests the innate hostility that existed in parts of the United States towards Britain just as empire builder as Rhodes was waxing lyrical about it. (This imperialist junkie did allow 32 places for American recipients of the scholarship that bears his name.) Economics played a hand, as it would during the interwar years: the fear that Britain was exerting a threatening influence over the range cattle industry and other fields of foreign capital investment.
The populist movements which yielded rich electoral rewards for that grand populist William Jennings Bryan were largely inspired by antipathies towards Britain. It was all and good that Americans and Brits were proud, sterling whites with a penchant for civilising, but that was not always enough. Other works, John E. Moser’s being prominent amongst them, move the debate forward, seeing the British in the interwar years as a lion whose tail was twisted.
A joust conducted through the mail on December 1919 between a certain Dwight M. Lowrey and Senator William E. Borah of Idaho, implacable opponent of the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations, sheds light on what would become common themes in forthcoming global struggles. Lowrey, in responding to Borah’s oration that month attacking the League, found various references in the Senator’s speech to British colonial rule discomforting. “India and Egypt under British control, and to Ireland, an inseparable part of the great Commonwealth of Great Britain and Ireland, awake doleful memories of old High Tariff harangues, German propaganda, and Sinn Fein [sic] delirious and seditious extravagances.”
Lowrey, wearing ideological goggles with a clear imperial tinting, argued that, “The spirit of the British Empire is freedom, not mastery.” The task of finding “A modern instance of spoliation under the Union Jack” would be “difficult”, and it was a task he did not endure for long. Borah, on the other hand, was happy to undertake it: “India sweltering in ignorance and burdened with inhuman taxes after more than 100 years of dominant rule; Egypt trapped and robbed of her birthright; Ireland with 700 years of sacrifice for independence.” Such language ignored the values of English thrift and administrative skill. Indian oppression was not quite right, argued Lowrey: the English were simply prudent to re-enforce existing hierarchies in the name or order. One form of social class stratified consciousness is just as any other, or so Lowrey would have us believe. The battle continues to rage today.
Recent directions seem to point to a revision of this relationship between America and Albion. The new staffers in Downing Street suggest a vigorous spring-clean of tried truths: going it alone, or with a few Anglo-centric partners in international relations, may not only be dim, but destructive. International Development Secretary David Alexander snorted against “unilateralism”, preferring “new alliances, based on common values.” (For the speech go to: http://www.dfid.gov.uk/news/files/Speeches/council-foreign-relations.asp). On Radio 5 Live (13 July 2007), he stubbornly insisted that, “We will not allow people to separate us from the United States of America in dealing with the common challenges that we face around the world.” Britain will be both with the Americans, and with the others, a testy balance to say the least.
On Iraq, the tensions are mounting. 5,500 British soldiers looks somewhat less impressive than 45,000, but the reduction has been taking place for months. The aim is ultimately something the Americans will have to yield to: the transfer of full sovereignty to the Iraqis. The American Right (or at least sections of it) are sniffing out for signs of a betrayal. American military officials speculate on British failure in Basra, a convenient distraction from the clay-footed imperialism that operates in other parts of the country. General Jack Keane has been labouring in the frontlines against his British counterparts: British policy in Basra has bred, he told the Daily Telegraph (24 August), nothing less than “gangland warfare”.
There is much to be said on how the British might affect the policy in Iraq, though holding up in Basra and hoping for the best is hardly a sound advertisement for success. George Michael’s animated antics in Shoot the Dog featuring a canine Blair fetching the White Lawn Frisbee thrown by an intellectually challenged Bush may not be applicable to Brown. He has already eschewed Bush-nosing with care. Withdrawing now will leave the American-led forces in the lurch, despite the diminishing returns of the British garrison. If they do, Britain will have entered another phase in its long-term association with Washington.