Podium: Our dangerous reliance on America

Kathleen Burk

From her inaugural

lecture as Professor

of Modern History

at University College, London

THE THEME of Anglo-American relations in the 20th century has been the - perhaps unprecedented - peaceful transferral of hegemony from one power to another.

Great Britain, the supreme international power, protected the US during the 19th century. During the First World War, Britain as the dominant power encouraged the US to assume the role of a Great Power in the old international system, although she hoped it would be a role subordinate to her own; during the interwar period the two countries competed and co-operated in varying measure; and during and after the Second World War the US finally acted as the dominant power, protecting in her turn the weaker power. Britain encouraged the US to assume these international responsibilities; she believed that the US shared her view of the world and would generally support British interests.

The US and Britain have always been commercial and economic rivals; it has been the lack of territorial conflicts which have allowed these rivalries to be put aside when a common danger threatens. It was common enemies, not historical links, which brought them together in the First and Second World Wars - first Germany and then Japan - and a common enemy in the Soviet Union which kept them together in the postwar world. The two countries currently lack an equivalent substitute and the geopolitical relationship has somewhat cooled.

Yet these historical links are as undeniable as the cultural connections are innumerable. There is the shared history itself; the US was the child of Great Britain, which bequeathed it language, literature, common law, and a political model against which the US designed its own system.

The common root of both legal systems means that the legal professions look to each other. Financial, literary and publishing worlds straddle the Atlantic, bridged also by academic relationships. There is the openness to each other's popular culture. Americans are more likely to visit Britain when they go abroad than any other country. British tourists return the compliment.

All of this provides a resonance, a network of contacts. And it is this texture of personal and professional relationships which has repeatedly carried the political and diplomatic relationship over rough ground. Triumphalist America is hard for British policy-makers to swallow, but they have had to put up with it, at least publicly. This is because a country with continuing aspirations, first to world power, and then to world influence and the ability to protect worldwide economic interests, but without the economic and military power to do so on its own, must find help. Britain over the 20th century has repeatedly striven to yoke American power to British policies - and the US has repeatedly struggled against her power being so co-opted.

For Britain there has seemingly been no choice. In January 1949, Whitehall agreed on the following principle: `Since post-war planning began, our policy has been to secure close political, military and economic co-operation with the USA. This has been necessary to get economic aid. It will also be decisive for our security. We hope to secure a special relationship with the USA and Canada. For in the last resort we cannot rely upon the European countries."

If the fundamental responsibility of a government is to protect the realm, it must do what is necessary, including adopting what can sometimes appear an ignoble posture, supporting the US even when the US does the seemingly insupportable. The foundation of this approach is to ensure that Britain remains the US's most dependable ally, in the hope and expectation that the US will remain Britain's. The flaw is that it does not always work - consider Suez; but it works often enough - consider the Falklands War - to ensure that it has remained the Ark of the Covenant.

What must now be asked, however, is whether the world has changed enough to allow British policy to evolve in another direction. No one with any knowledge of history can believe that the contemporary configuration of powers is set in stone, or that there can be any eternal friends or eternal enemies.

British and American interests are frequently complementary but they are not identical. Yet there is no obvious alternative power on which Britain can depend, while the European nation states remain unable to function as a single diplomatic or military actor. It would just be a bit reassuring to know that alternatives were being seriously thought about rather than the knee-jerk reaction in support of the Belloc Doctrine: `And always keep a hold of Nurse / For fear of finding something worse'.