Leading Article: Reliable allies still matter

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR'S first meeting with President Bill Clinton will no doubt be superficially genial. But beneath the surface the much analysed special Anglo-American relationship is more troubled than for many years. On the US side, Britain's Conservative government is seen as the spiritual heir of a damaging ideology that bound Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan so closely together. That link seemed to be perpetuated by the Conservatives' ill-considered decision to advise the Bush camp during the presidential election campaign and, even more unwisely, to have official records searched for evidence of unpatriotic behaviour by Mr Clinton when he was at Oxford. Recently, Britain has caused irritation by being reluctant to agree to air attacks on Serbian targets.

The British for their part continue to doubt Mr Clinton's commitment to free trade; and they resent his campaign proposal to send a peace emissary to Northern Ireland. Fears of a trade war have been fanned by a series of seemingly hostile moves against European exporters, accompanied by remarks that appeared to threaten the unpicking of agreed sections of the stalled Gatt negotiations. As for the mooted peace mission to Ulster, it has been downgraded to a fact-finding exercise.

The two heads of government must prevent these irritants from causing real damage to an old friendship that remains valuable - even if, for this country, the 'special relationship' has been in some respects a mixed blessing. It should have been possible for British prime ministers to sustain good relations with both Washington and the European Community, but not one has succeeded. All, with the exception of Edward Heath, showed themselves to be ultimately more sympathetic to the US than to Europe. Hence the enduring suspicion of our EC partners that Britain's loyalties to Washington will always, in a crisis, be stronger than those to Brussels. Margaret Thatcher's rudeness to her EC counterparts was seen as a natural complement to her affectionate relationship with Ronald Reagan.

Mr Major began his premiership without any particular ties with Washington, and vowing to put Britain at the heart of Europe. He developed excellent relations with Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and was seen to be trying to make good the damage done by Mrs Thatcher to Britain's European reputation. Those diplomatic gains were largely negated by the debacle over sterling's membership of the exchange rate mechanism and the delay in ratifying the Maastricht treaty.

Britain's value to the US lies largely in its ability to act as a kind of mediator or interpreter between Washington and the EC. The poor impression created by parliamentary shenanigans over Maastricht has done damage in Washington as well as in the capitals of Europe.

Yet Mr Clinton should not underestimate this country's value as an ally. Within Europe, only France shares Britain's long international experience and ability to put troops and planes into a field of conflict - and the French remain outside Nato's command structure and perennially suspicious of American intentions. No other country is as likely to support the United States in the UN Security Council, and none has worked so closely with the US in the intelligence and military fields. No other country, save possibly the Netherlands, shares the US's post-war tradition of free trade. In the present unstable era, in which fear of a nuclear holocaust no longer binds the West together, instinctive allies are even more precious than before. It is not just to Britain that Mr Major's visit is important.