In the US, on the other hand, the reaction has been hostile. The State Department spokesman James Foley has made clear that the US will not follow Britain's lead, until and unless Libya agrees to a range of conditions including payment of compensation to victims of Pan Am 103 and acknowledgement of responsibility. Representatives of the families of those who were killed have denounced Britain for betrayal. Republican critics have warned Clinton against any compromise; they oppose the trial of the Libyan suspects being held in The Hague, not least because, held under Scottish law, it does not allow for the death penalty. The US is blocking any permanent lifting of UN sanctions on Libya, imposed in 1992, and intends to keep its own national sanctions, imposed under the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act in 1996.
The first myth that needs to be got out of the way is that this is the first breach in an otherwise solid wall of US-British unity on international issues. Supporters of the "special relationship" like to invoke this unity. Left-wing opponents of Anglo-US relations fall into the same trap. Yet on a range of issues bearing on the Libyan case, London and Washington have diverged for a long time.
Britain has never supported US national sanctions on Cuba, or Iran, and has, under Conservative and Labour governments, resisted US attempts to extend its extraterritorial authority to cover foreign firms in those countries. On Middle Eastern issues there is an overlap of British and US policies, but also significant divergence: this Government has advocated lessening sanctions on Iraq, and an even-handed policy with regard to the Oslo process. One day we may learn more of disagreements over Bosnia and Kosovo.
The Libyan case also highlights divergence on an ethical issue of global resonance: capital punishment. The Labour Government has been active in promoting a world-wide ban on this barbarous practice, to which US states and people alike remained addicted. On 20 May, Britain ratified Protocol 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which committed Britain to permanent abolition.
The dispute over Libya touches on two other dimensions of Anglo-US relations. One is the relative balance of force and diplomacy in relations with hostile states. No one disputes that Libya has been engaged in violent and illegal actions against its neighbours and against Western interests. Some of these have involved support for terrorism. But Libya has, over the last few years, sought to meet international objections to its behaviour.
It has, by all the evidence, ceased attempts to acquire nuclear or chemical weapons. It submitted its claim to part of its neighbour Chad to the International Court of Justice, and accepted the unfavourable outcome. As far as Lockerbie itself is concerned, Libya has said that it will respect the outcome of the trial.
As far as Britain and other European states are concerned, there are also benefits to be derived from having direct diplomatic links to Tripoli. One is certainly commercial; a decade of sanctions has left Libya's public and private sectors impoverished, and its people demoralised. There are clear economic opportunities there, but more immediate is the diplomatic benefit itself.
This is a moment, transitory perhaps, when the diplomatic atmosphere in the Middle East is improving. Barak, Arafat and Asad are talking of progress on Arab-Israeli negotiations. Iran is improving its relations with the Arab world, and has given tacit support to a compromise in southern Lebanon. There are serious peace initiatives in Libya's neighbour to the west, Algeria, and a lessening of tension between government and Islamist opposition in the neighbour to the east, Egypt. Libya is not decisive in these processes, but it can play a more or less responsible role, as it could in any new political initiatives in its troubled neighbour to the south east, Sudan.
US charges that Libya is getting away with its past policies are, in this context, unfounded. Colonel Gaddafi certainly has his own reasons for wanting to improve relations with the outside world. He wants to revitalise his economy and overcome widespread public discontent. He fears, as do all Arab states, a revival of Islamist opposition. He is also looking forward to the 30th anniversary of his coming to power, on 1 September 1969. The days of a spurious mass democracy, or of the global repercussions of his Green Book, may be over, but he is, like several other Arab leaders, looking to his legacy, at home and abroad. He has even confessed, in chance remarks, to an affection for the English countryside, al-rif al-inglizi as he calls it, acquired during his training at an RAF base in Buckinghamshire in the Sixties.
The second broad issue of divergence with Washington concerns treatment of international criminal acts. The US has no claim to a monopoly of moral indignation when it comes to Libya. People of many nationalities died in the Lockerbie explosion. The British Isles have had their own special taste of Gaddafi's support for terrorism, in the form of an estimated 50 tons of weapons sent to the IRA, and smaller quantities sent to Protestant paramilitaries.
Those, however, who have fared worst from Gaddafi's policies are to be found in the Arab world, in countries in which he has recklessly interfered, notably Sudan, Egypt and Yemen, and, of course, the hapless population of Libya itself, which has endured nearly 30 years of his demagogy and incompetence. The final word should therefore lie with them. In the meantime the rest of the world can abandon its posturing and seek, as regional necessity and diplomatic sense alike dictate, to rebuild a relationship shattered a decade or more ago.
The writer is professor of international relations at the LSE, and author of `Islam and the Myth of Confrontation' (IB Tauris)Reuse content