Adrian Hamilton: We can't be America's friend if we act as its courtier

To Washington, the UK is a good friend and a solid ally, but it is not an overwhelmingly important one
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The Independent Online

When will we ever learn? Fifty years after the Suez débâcle showed up Britain's waning power and fragmenting empire, prime ministers and their foreign secretaries are still at the game of talking up the UK's position in the world. Only now we're supposed to be achieving it not by our own efforts, but by being close to the world's last remaining superpower.

"The relationship with America," trumpeted Tony Blair to the Commons Liaison Committee on Tuesday, "is what opens lots of doors everywhere, including the Middle East. For better or worse, this country for the past 10 years has been right at the heart of every single agenda - whether it is terrorism, climate change, Africa, whatever it is."

Where does one start with this pathetic confusion of the appearance of access for the reality of power? There's really no point in going into the question of what real influence Blair has had on his friend President Bush. Account after account from officials on both sides have indicated that there was astonishingly little. At no point, certainly not on the Middle East, nor on climate change, did Bush offer Blair even the most token of concessions - if, indeed, Blair ever asked for them.

That is not to say that Blair wasn't - isn't - sincere about doing something for Middle East peace, global warming and African poverty. But to claim that he was able to put his ideas into action because of his access to the White House is simply to delude himself. To Washington, the UK is a good friend and a solid ally, but it is not an overwhelmingly important one. We can deliver no vassals. We have no special friends around the world. In economic and military terms, we are a middling nation cast into growing irreverence by the emergence of new forces in Asia.

Even in Iraq, where we have put a sizeable force, by our standards, into the field, the US was perfectly prepared to go in without us had we felt unable to join in the invasion. Indeed, the more reliable we have been, the more the White House has taken us for granted. If you have as absolute a belief, as Bush does, in the righteousness of your cause, then followers should not be thanked for joining you. It is only right that they should.

But in the endless speeches of self-justification that now accompany each step of the Prime Minister's reluctant trudge to the exit door, Blair would have us (and his successor) accept a much more central, and disturbing, belief about Britain .

It is that it is somehow in Britain's interest to continue to pretend to be a great power - "to punch above our weight", to use Douglas Hurd's infinitely depressing phrase - and that the only way we can do this is through the ear of Washington. It is the classic courtier's view. Proximity to the King is all. But why should we continue to pretend to be a great power when we're not? As a country increasingly concentrated on being the world's financial centre and the service industries' hub, there's no great advantage in going round the globe trying to order it. It just leads us - as it is now - into military ventures beyond our means and commitments to new generations of nuclear weaponry that we do not need and ought not to be making.

The whole idea, in Blair's latest pet concept, of balancing "hard power" with "soft power", and not being afraid to use the former when we feel like it, is essentially a neo-imperialist one, a hangover from the days when the white man believed it was his mission to bring civilisation and its values to the world.

It has precious little to do with our actual ability to deliver hard power except in small, individual bursts. Nor does it have much to do with our economic circumstances, which demand an open, multilateralist and, on the whole, peaceful approach to the world.

Even Washington - outside of the White House - is moving away from a belief in the virtues of hard power as a major policy tool in its own right. At one time, it was perfectly possible to view the US as the victor in the Cold War, the one remaining superpower, or hyperpower, as she was called. With the election of George Bush as president, it was also possible to argue, as Blair did, that it was vital to stay close to Washington to prevent it becoming isolationist.

But 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq has changed all that. Instead of displaying America's mailed fist in all its might to crush terrorists and reshape the Middle East, Washington has actually shown the limitations of US hard power and the penalties of acting on its own. In place of a colossus that would bestride the world alone, it is now seen through much of the world to be a fading power, wilting under the competition from China and India.

Any US administration after Bush is going to have to reconsider the country's foreign policy from the bottom up. In this it will need friends who can rebuild bridges for it, allies who can help it reformulate its interests and enable it to get out of entanglements such as Iraq. What it won't need is a courtier totally dependent on the US for its own power and prestige.

The idea that Britain should choose to act either as an unstinting supporter of America or as a European and anti-American - one of those classic false dichotomies so beloved of the British Prime Minister - is just silly. Of course Britain is America's friend. But a good friend is an independent one. He or she is more useful as such - as any of us know from our personal lives.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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