Thursday 19 February 2009

German view of that "special relationship"

Guest post by Rolf Mutzenich, Member of the Bundestag.

Europe could hardly wait for President Obama's inauguration. Yet the expectations placed on the new president are far too high, and are partly due to the longing for a contrast with George W. Bush. Hopes for a radical change in course are also caused to some degree by idealistic, wishful thinking in Europe regarding a multilateral American foreign policy. Nonetheless, the mood of optimism in the US is genuine, despite the crisis. And it is spreading to Europe. The signals in the field of disarmament and arms control, in particular, offer grounds for hope.
Despite this hope, however, Europe should not overlook the fact that Obama's scope for action is limited in political and financial terms, and that the new US President will hardly be in a position to work all the miracles expected of him. In addition, Obama wants to consolidate the United States' position of leadership in the world. If necessary, he will act alone and without regard for others.
If there is to be a new beginning in transatlantic relations, it is important to realise that the US is no longer a "European power", as it surely was in the good old days of the Cold War. Today, the United States' strategic interests lie in the Pacific, the Middle East and South Asia.
Moreover, Europe is far from united and still does not speak with one voice. As long as the Lisbon Treaty remains unratified, this is unlikely to change. We need the reforms it contains and we need a European foreign minister. Only a Europe which speaks with one voice and puts forward a shared position can expect to be taken seriously.
This brings me to my assessment of the special relationship between the UK and the United States. Winston Churchill once delivered the following furious riposte to a stubborn de Gaulle: "Every time we must choose between Europe and the open sea, we will always choose the open sea."
Many Europeans still see the UK as the United States' unsinkable aircraft carrier in Europe. Yet it should not be forgotten that the special relationship between the UK and the US is relatively new, from a historical perspective. It is impossible to say whether the Central Powers would have lost the First World War even if America had not entered the war. The only certainty is that afterwards there was no point at which they could have won. The fact that America refrained from using its newly won power following the war, leaving Europe to itself, spared the British elite from having to recognise that their empire was overstretched in power-political terms.
As a result, relations between the UK and the US were not without tension or even humiliations. It was impossible to continue a relationship on equal terms after the Second World War, because the two sides were no longer equal. In 1956, the Suez Crisis marked the end of Britain's status as a global power. Today, the UK can do comparatively little for America in political, economic or military terms.
What does remain is a certain sentimentality, visible again in the Falklands war, and more enduring on this side of the Atlantic than the other. With Barack Obama's inauguration as US President, this memory of a shared Anglo-Saxon culture is fading, and demographic change means it is weakening in the UK, too.
What remains of the special relationship is the unique peaceful replacement of one world power by another, and the resulting development of a special love-hate relationship between two related and friendly nations.

1 comment:

Sunder Katwala said...

Dear Rolf,

Thank you for the post. The point is well and fairly argued. I don't think I would want to challenge the history. The great irony of the history, in my view, is that accepting Churchill's critique of the appeasement policy of the 1930s was very explicitly a choice that our interests were inextricably linked with what happened in Europe (there is an argument, made by Paul Kennedy and others, that this can be said of much English and British history back to 1066) and that this inevitably meant speeding the decline of Empire and global power status. But the Churchillian rhetoric rather obscured and overlooked the choice he himself had made. Of course the UK debt to the US meant we were not equal by 1945, and found little love in the special relationship since ending imperialism was also a US war aim.

And you are right that we realised this only after Suez, and took 20 years to come to terms with it.

But my query or difference would be in questioning whether the choice needs to be framed like this, both substantively and in terms of how to shift UK agnosticism of Europe. Perhaps it is too zero sum. For example, US administrations over 60 years have mostly supported both more EU integration and closer UK involvement in the EU.

And, on a Europe wide basis, the vision of the EU we need is not I think any longer some Gaullist counterweight to the US so much as a more effective partner for the shared multilateralism we need, and how a stronger EU would create a more balanced and effective transatlantic approach.

I have been at presentations and discussions of UK attitudes to Europe where studies of UK public opinion seem to have found (perhaps counterintuitively) that there is relatively little sense among the public of there being a pro-EU so anti-US (or pro-US so less pro-EU) constituency among the public, though both are fairly common positions among certain elite opinion former groups on left and right.

Rather the more salient difference seems to often be between positive approaches to both Europe and America, or negative approaches to both, ie that the issue is more an open versus closed idea which is applied to both than the sense of a choice between international approaches and partners. I don't know if this might be a peculiarly British dynamic, or whether it might be quite common in some other European countries too.