Bruce Anderson: Shock, horror... America places its own interests first

The illusions about a new world order were a half-holiday from realism

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Foreign policy is a deep study, unsuited to the short attention spans of democratic politics. It is unlikely to figure in the forthcoming election. Yet there is still enough time for long views before the campaigning starts, and two interesting contributions to foreign affairs have recently been published. One of them made headlines: the report of the House of Commons' foreign affairs committee which advocated a more cautious approach to the US and proclaimed the death of the special relationship.

Scepticism is in order. The coroner has often been called on to deal with that supposed corpse, and a wise coroner would come to two conclusions: that it never existed, and that it will last for the indefinite future. As the Irishman said, "This pig doesn't weigh as much as I thought it did, but then again, I never thought it would".

Those who announce the relationship's death usually start with a shocking discovery: that America always places its own interests first. This would not have come as news to Winston Churchill, who invented the phrase "special relationship" and who could have provided a score of examples of American unilateralism. So could Margaret Thatcher, under whom the relationship reached its peacetime apogee. Her memoirs are full of disagreements with the Reagan administration. Her personal relationship with the President enabled her to win battles which some of his advisers would have preferred Britain to lose, but there was a lot of tough transatlantic talking.

Personalities are important. We were immensely fortunate that Caspar Weinberger was the US Defence Secretary during the Falklands War. A great Anglophile, his help was indispensable. His Cabinet colleague, UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, tried to undermine Britain's position in favour of supposed US interests in Latin America. So what if the fortunes of politics had brought her to the Pentagon? Could we still have won that war? Probably, but with even greater difficulties, strains and stresses.

There are problems with the Americans. Because they have not spent the last millennium in a conflict-ridden continent, crammed up against potentially hostile neighbours, they have only been fitfully interested in diplomacy. They are so big that they sometimes dispense with allies in favour of global solipsism. But almost every President comes to recognise that this is not enough. At some point he wants friends and discovers we British not only speak the same language. We tend to think in the same way. We are more likely than anyone else to provide tea, sympathy and troops.

But it is never a tranquil partnership. Harold Macmillan, normally the least sentimental of men, once employed some honeyed words as a salve for post-Suez wounds. He announced that we would be the Greeks to the Americans' Romans. It was a curious choice of phrase for a good classicist, who must have known that the Romans often used their Greek slaves in the way that some Catholic priests used their choirboys.

Suez: it was surprising that the Anglo-American relationship was rebuilt so quickly after that humiliation. We and the French drew opposite conclusions from the degringolade. The French decided never to trust Washington again. We were determined that we would never again find ourselves on opposite sides to the Yanks. This fundamental divergence of view made it even harder to achieve concord in Europe. The French looked on, bewildered, astonished and ultimately contemptuous, as we pretended that Suez had never happened. If they had known their Dickens, they would have said that we were acting like Bill Sikes's dog. Knowing our Dickens, we saw France as Miss Havisham, frozen in nostalgia and fantasy.

France brings us to the second recent contribution, which is wholly free from nostalgia or fantasy. Douglas Hurd has produced a study of Foreign Secretaries between Canning and Eden. Drawing on his own experience in that great office, Lord Hurd's book Choose your Weapons is full of wry, unillusioned wisdom. There are some delicious aperçus. Here is Canning on French foreign policy: "To thwart us wherever they know our object, and when they know it not, to imagine one for us, and set about thwarting that". Some things do not change. All Douglas Hurd's characters are portrayed sympathetically, even when they fail. He knows how hard it is to do that job well. His ideal Foreign Secretary would be a blend of Castlereagh and Canning. In the absence of such a paragon, it is tempting to award the gold medal to Castlereagh, who invented the doctrine of collective security and who created a system which preserved peace in Europe for almost 40 years.

In that, he shades Salisbury, who did not believe in systems, and whose ordered world was swept into the trenches within a few years of his death. Lord Hurd mentions a melancholy contrast between Victorian stability and grandeur, even when embattled, and the world to come.

Though Salisbury was usually immune from popular emotion, there was a huge bonfire at Hatfield in 1900, to celebrate the relief of Mafeking. It was lit by Lord Salisbury's grandson, George. Fourteen years later, Lieutenant George Cecil was killed in Flanders. Douglas Hurd hints at a comparison between Salisbury and Bismarck. Salisbury was reluctant to conclude alliances. Bismarck did, but they were of a kind which could easily move from the council chamber to the battlefield. Both men's methods worked while they were in charge. In lesser hands, the pen gave way to the trumpet.

Lord Hurd's book is an enduring contribution. To him, foreign policy is a cautious dialectic between possibilities and limits. Although it was an unlikely metaphor from such a gentle man, he has contributed a useful phrase to the foreign policy lexicon: that Britain should continue "to punch above its weight". If we are to do that, we will need the help of the Americans. Only they could help us to project that punch. Though Lord Hurd would disagree, the English translation of "European foreign policy" is "lowest common denominator".

There is a further reason to move beyond Europe. In Castlereagh's day, collective security in Europe was the key to peace. That is no longer true. The two European civil wars of the 20th century destroyed our continent's primacy. The Mediterranean is no longer the centre of the earth. Although the new search for collective security must involve the Americans, it should also include Russia, India and China. The UK has still not come to terms with the end of the Cold War. The brief illusions about a new world order and the end of history were a mere half-holiday from realism, which has now reasserted itself. But it is an uncharted realism, full of unknown unknowns.

So we need new maps and new weapons. After the Cold War, we paid ourselves at least as large a peace dividend as was wise. It was not only banks which ran down their asset ratios to dangerously low levels. We need a defence review, and not as thin disguise for further cuts. We need to ensure that there are enough boxing gloves to deliver Lord Hurd's punch. At the same time, we should scrap our Cold War concepts.

We have no strategic quarrel with Russia. As for China, there is Taiwan, but that issue seems to have settled down into a local version of Cold War stability. As we are so good at diplomacy and have historic links, we could even help discreetly to explain the Chinese to the Indians, and vice-versa.

As the Irishman ought to have said, it is hard enough to predict the past, let alone the future. That has never been more true. In foreign affairs, there is only one certainty. There will be regular proclamations of the death of the special relationship. But the hearse will never arrive.

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