Wednesday, 17 June 2009

On that 'Special Relationship'

Living in the UK one frequently hears about that 'special relationship' between the United Kingdom and the United States of America. It is constantly on the news and in political discussions of every nature and political hue. "Oh yes, our cousins across the water..." is often the way the Americans are described. Little wonder then that the British government under Mr Blair rushed to support America when the war in Iraq was touted at first by the GW Bush Administration some years ago. And it wasn't that surprising that a sizable force of British troops dashed to join their American counterparts in the now famous war against GW Bush's "Axis of Evil". This special relationship has, it seems to me, been taken for granted by many of those in authority in the UK, the assumption being that the Americans likewise consider the UK as their strongest and most important ally. Strongest ally perhaps, but most important? The British perhaps need to go back home and do some serious thinking about this.

Of course there was once upon a time when the British Empire was the greatest empire the world had ever seen. The Japanese fought the war in south east Asia in the fourth decade of the 20th Century, largely to wrestle control of as much territory as possible from the British and the French, the Dutch and the Americans. America sided with Britain in that war, but this was partially because the US recognised that Britain's ability to continue in her control of such an inordinately huge chunk of the world was doubtful, therefore America needed to be in a position where she could fill the gap left behind by a much weakened post-war Britain.

In defending their home islands the British fought a bitter war against the Germans, who had by then conquered much of Western Europe and cast their eyes eastwards in their quest for lebensraum. The Americans it was who came to the rescue of the British, much as they had done in the first war a few decades previously. The Americans were Britain's heroes, regardless that during the war, and on more than one occasion, America's Roosevelt attempted to deal directly and secretly with the USSR's Stalin without involving Churchill. It had always been clear to the Americans that two major powers would emerge at the end of the war, not three. But the British appear to have persisted, surprisingly even to this day, in the delusion that they are somehow still to be regarded as a major world power, when even the economic powerhouses of Asia have clearly overtaken the UK in the world-power stakes.

In more recent times President Reagan and Mrs Thatcher have looked good together in pictures and on TV. But it is not that surprising that the US did not consult the UK before invading the island of Grenada, a former British dependency and a member of the Comonwealth. In fact, Britain was not even informed at all beforehand. Again, President Reagan announced the "Star Wars" missile defence programme with no regard whatsoever to Britain's concerns that the plan would leave Western Europe vulnerable to attack by the USSR. Sure, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were like brothers, a fraternal relationship the continuation of which was attempted albeit less successfully with GW Bush. But did this relationship justify Mr Blair's determination to go to war in Iraq, a decision which was loudly opposed by millions of people in Britain? We hear that Gordon Brown has now announced an inquiry (to be held behind closed doors by the way), into the decision to go to that war. But is this not just a ruse designed by Mr Brown rather belatedly to distance himself from what is perhaps the most unpopular foreign policy decision made my any British government since the Suez crisis in the 1950s? Besides, it cannot be so easily forgotten that Mr Brown himself was at the material time Tony Blair's Chancellor for the Exchequer and that it was he who was therefore in almost complete control of the UK economy, such that this war adventure could never have happened without his full cooperation and support. Many discerning commentators seem to agree that this inquiry is merely an attempt to win back some desperately needed goodwill for Brown's Labour Party after the party's recent unprecedented slump in popularity.

A few days ago, UK media was agog with reports that the US government had concluded a secret deal with the authorities in Bermuda, by which the Bermudians agreed to accept four former Guantanamo detainees. Officially Bermuda continues to be a British Overseas Territory, but British authorities knew nothing of the deal until the four men, all ethnic Uighurs from western China, were already airborne, en route from Guantanamo to Bermuda, an island territory better known as a haven for tax exiles and gawping tourists, than former terrorism suspects. The alarm bells only sounded in London when Mr Ewart Brown, the Bermudian Premier, welcomed the men as "landed in Bermuda in the short term, provided with the opportunity to become naturalised citizens and thereafter afforded the right to travel and leave Bermuda, potentially settling elsewhere". The Bermudians have declared that the men are in the country as "guest workers". My guess is that Bermuda has done this in a bid to find favour with an Obama Administration that has made loud noises about tax havens and the need to curb their activities. The self-interest of the Bermudians has superseded their allegiance to Britain. Bermuda is a wealthy country whose wealth relies heavily on its status as a tax haven and the authorities there are anxious to stave off regulations. Moreover, while Britain remains the colonial master, (indeed Bermuda is Britain's oldest colony, having been a British possession since 1612), Bermuda's trade and economic ties with the US have become increasingly important.

Under the UK's Overseas Territories Act of 2002, citizens of Bermuda are restored with the full rights of British citizenship, including the right of abode in the United Kingdom. Bermuda has control over internal affairs, including immigration, but not over foreign affairs, defence or security matters. Britain believes that it is under this latter category that the case of these former terrorism suspects falls.

Britain is upset and has appeared in this matter to be scrambling to assert the last vestiges of its colonial authority. The Americans proceeded to conclude this deal with Bermuda after Britain had insisted that she would take no more former detainees from Guantanamo as part of the Obama Administration's effort to close the jail. This move by America is a wake-up call for anyone who still thinks that Britain has any significant influence on US foreign policy. What guides US foreign policy is national self-interest. Britain is a useful ally when needed, but what Britain thinks or wants is largely irrelevant. Methinks that we should be poised to see more in this trend from the Obama Administration, with which the government of Gordon Brown shares nothing like the personal and ideological partnership of governments of both countries in years gone by.

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