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January 17, 2005

America & Britain: The Overlooked Alliance

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

The Blair government's support for the United States over the Iraq war has proved extremely controversial in the UK. Prof. William D. Rubinstein puts the Blair government's decision in its proper historical context. Prof. Rubinstein argues that Britain's alliance with the USA over Iraq is not an aberration and represents the restoration of a former situation. This aspect of Britain's involvement in the Iraq war has not received the attention it deserves.

The overthrow of Saddam Hussein and his regime was brought about chiefly by a partnership between the United States and Britain. During much of the twentieth century, at least until the 1960s, this partnership was arguably the most important determining factor in the world's geo-politics: it crucially determined the outcome of both World Wars and of the Cold War. Here, I would like to examine some dimensions of this partnership and suggest that the wider events of the past twenty years have restored it to international centrality.

While this partnership had deep political and cultural roots, it was not preordained to develop. Until the late nineteenth century, relations between the United States and Britain - never mind the American Revolution - were often surprisingly poor. Britain and America fought in the War of 1812, which lasted until 1815 and resulted in the sacking of Washington D.C. and of the White House by an ancestor of - of all people - Lord Longford's; the two countries nearly came into conflict during the American Civil War, when many in Britain's upper classes supported the South, at least initially. Memories of the "Redcoats" and "Hessians" (German mercenaries who fought for Britain) during the Revolution, of British imperialism, and of Britain as a trade rival remained surprisingly deep and frequently-encountered themes in America's national identity and cultural life, to the extent that it is actually somewhat surprising that relations between the two became as close as they did.

Nevertheless, from the late nineteenth century on, there was a constant and pronounced movement of opinion among America's elites and its opinion-leaders which moved diametrically from viewing Britain as a traditional enemy to warm regard, even loyalty, to it as the "mother country". The reasons for this are many and somewhat obscure, but possibly revolved around the realisation among America's elites that they were, generally, British by descent, and often keen to trace their own lineage back to their (preferably royal, noble, or gentry) ancestors in Britain.

Possibly the most striking evidence of this were the so-called "dollar princesses", wealthy American heiresses who married into Britain's old aristocracy. In the 1870-1914 period they were numerous, with impecunious old aristocrats only too happy to be rescued financially by nouveau-riches Americans. Sir Winston Churchill was, of course, the best-known product of such a match, but there were many others. Many possibly deeper reasons for the Anglo-American alliance can be traced, especially the economic linkages between the City of London and Wall Street. That the twentieth century would see the world governed by some sort of Anglo-American condominium was a stock-in-trade of soothsayers in the late nineteenth century, who sometimes added a third member of a worldwide governing triumvirate for the new century, namely Germany.

Germany was widely seen as the third of the progressive, Protestant, "Teutonic" nations, which had risen in the course of the nineteenth century. Surprisingly many expected an alliance among the three powers to determine the course of twentieth-century history. Perhaps regrettably, the bloody-minded determination of Germany's ruling circles to pursue policies as threatening and alarming as possible, especially in creating a large ocean-going navy from scratch for no obvious reason, made such a triple alliance impossible. By 1914, there was not the slightest doubt that if and when the United States entered the First World War, it would be on the side of Britain not Germany, as of course occurred in April 1917 when the United States declared war. Despite the strength of isolationism in America, there was even less doubt that, during the 1930s, the loyalties of most of America's elites and opinion-leaders lay with Britain and were antipathetic to Nazi German expansionism and to the Axis. The "Grand Alliance" among the Western allies in the Second World War was forged - as today - by leaders of very different ideologies, the quasi-social democratic Franklin Roosevelt and the arch-Tory Winston Churchill.

After 1945, and despite its leftwing, socialistic assumptions, the Attlee Labour government did not hesitate to join the Truman administration in stopping Soviet expansionism and forming NATO. By the 1950s - and in spite of Dean Acheson's celebrated remark that Britain "had lost an empire but not found a role" - England had actually found a perfectly satisfactory niche as America's international understudy and second-in-command, with aspirations to be - in Harold Macmillan's phrase - "Greece to America's Rome". (Did not one wit later remark that the British, who were once like the Romans, had become like the Italians?) This relatively satisfactory situation, supported by virtually everyone in Britain apart from the extreme left, persisted into the early 1960s, with the Kennedy/Macmillan administrations probably marking the end of this old alliance in its strong form.

The succession to office of Lyndon Johnson in 1963 and of Harold Wilson a year later, brought this era to an end. Britain withdrew its forces east of Suez, and pointedly refused to become involved in Vietnam. More importantly, Britain's status as anything more than a middle-ranking power, under severe challenge since Suez, crumbled still further as its economy entered into seemingly permanent crisis and decline. America faced its own set of crises - Vietnam, Watergate, the Iran hostages - while (as is often forgotten today) its economy was itself performing in mediocre fashion. Domestically, America's cities turned into crime and drug-ridden cesspools.

By 1980 or so, Western Europe and, especially, Japan, appeared to be overtaking the English-speaking powers, while, in so far as America looked to strong foreign allies, these seemed clearly to be Germany and Japan rather than Britain.

Under the simultaneous impact of Reagan and Thatcher, both America and Britain rose again, just as Western Europe, left lagging behind by its morass of bureaucratic semi-socialism, and, more mysteriously, becalmed Japan, now stalled economically and politically. With Russia democratic but insolvent, and China moderate but rebuilding, by the end of the twentieth century the curious situation arose that the United States and Britain - yes, Britain - were again the apparent hegemons of the world, the British economy and, especially, the City of London restored to something like their old vigour. After a decades-long hiatus, both nations acted in concert again in Iraq, in the teeth of left-wing hostility at home and virtually universal scepticism and opposition in Europe and elsewhere. That this situation actually represented the restoration of a former situation - and was not anomalous, but founded in far-reaching improvements in the economic and political status of both countries, as well as in long-standing ties - has certainly not received the attention it deserves.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales - Aberystwyth.


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Professor Rubinstein cites many historical reasons that justify support for joint American-British action after the dastardly declaration of War on the West by militant Islam on September 11th 2001. The logical, comforting and predictable support of the extended Anglosphere is also based on historical alliances. Just as the lack of support from France, Germany and Russia were equally predictable and a clear indicator of the utter foolishness of Britain seeking closer political ties to the EU, rather than gradual extrication from the insidious aspirations of France and its anti-American cohorts. What is inexplicable and mind-blowing is the tsunami of Quisling activity within the Anglo-American alliance, particularly from a nay-saying media that appears to be hell-bent on destroying the political achievements of the past 60 years, in pursuit of a New Leftist cultural hegemony that is deeply rooted in Marxist madness. Have we learned nothing from the implosion of Communism? And what on earth is to be gained from ‘turning a Nelson’ to the burgeoning threat of violent Islamic mayhem and aspirational bellicosity. The successful Afghanistan campaign and the increasing success of the fight against terrorism in Iraq are just the beginning. If we do not realise it and forge ahead, we can prepare our issue and theirs for a return to medieval Islamic fundamentalism. Mere demographics alone present a massive problem even if terrorism ceased tomorrow. Cowardice must be declaimed where ever it is observed. And though Tony Blair may have seen on which side his bread was buttered at the beginning of all this, he cannot be trusted to carry it through, because quite soon, his Party will plough him in as fertiliser for the seeds of a modified Marxist European ideal. What is even more horrifying is the anti-American, or at least anti-Bush background noise emanating from Michael Howard and the Tory party.

Posted by: Frank Pulley at January 17, 2005 06:35 PM
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