LONDON — My God, the shame of it. Prime Minister Tony Blair is a poodle, yapping obediently when U.S. President George W. Bush snaps his fingers. This bitter vein of comedy runs through the thin political culture we have at the moment. But perhaps, muse the bitter critics, this British subservience to the United States will at least convince more people of the value of belonging to the European Union. The firm opposition of Germany to any involvement in attacking Iraq provides a sort of leadership for other EU countries, and this would be a more honorable alliance for Britain than being dragged along as “America’s staunchest ally.”
The counter to this harsh hostility to Britain’s foreign policy is that Blair is uniquely placed to stand against the gung-ho bombers who, to the outside world, currently run the U.S. State and Defense departments. And, they believe, he has stood against careless and vainglorious belligerence. If he had not, the U.S. would even now be pulverizing Baghdad.
The flaw in all these arguments is the illusion that individual politicians can change the course of history according to the strength of their individual beliefs or their individual characters. This is rarely true at home. It is even less likely to be true of foreign policy that is notoriously resistant to the sort of policies that elected politicians might come up with. Just as notoriously, changes in foreign policy in particular are made in response to crisis and under the pressure of crisis. At all other times, the actions of state departments bumble along doing what they have always done, shaped by the patterns and structures of the institutions that are themselves closely allied with other economic and political forces. “Other forces,” of course, include mega-corporations and the quiet insistence of domestic consumption.
The European Economic Community, and the U.S. itself 200 years earlier, would not have come into being were it not for the catastrophes of war, massive violence and huge economic malfunction. Certainly, crisis and the destruction of existing institutions allows the ideologues, the founding fathers of new states, to take their place as great political leaders. But without the huge crisis to shake up the existing patterns, they have relatively little say over the course of events.
Britain’s intimate links with the U.S. are a product of a 50-year unique intertwining of its military intelligence and procurement establishments. Britain offered the U.S. bases on the east side of the Atlantic at times when France, Spain and Ireland would or could not offer them, and a willing and experienced intelligence system.
Britain also had an existing or recent empire in the Middle East, Asia and much of Africa. To a U.S. that was veering toward its Cold War position even before World War II had ended, these patches of friendly terrain were of inestimable value. If Britain signed up to the Cold War with surprising alacrity, this was more to do with the threats communism posed to its colonial and capitalist rule.
What the U.S. had to offer Britain does not need enumerating but follows on that history of early capitalist and imperial dominance, shaped as it was by hostile competition with the rest of Europe. The legacy left to us, in the 21st century, is a history of tight linkage between British and American secret military intelligence and procurement that no mere politician can gainsay. It would take a revolution, a catastrophe, to break those historic patterns. Whether the democratic voting system in Britain produces a bulldog (Churchill) or poodle (Blair) as its elected leader, cannot make that much difference.
The U.S. favors the EU, and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had to play her part in cementing Britain’s formal European membership. But Britain is not unique in the resistance of historical patterns and institutions to political direction. It has been a commonplace of lectures on American policymaking that new presidents must hit the ground running, that they must have their new personnel, policies and agencies in place immediately on taking office, or they will simply get drawn along by what exists already. All significant politically directed change in the U.S. happens within the first two years of a president taking office or it doesn’t happen at all.
Retrospectively, it was former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s great policy error that his team had not put the basic plans for a health-care system in place before he put his wife Hillary to work on devising one. By the time she had a plan, the existing institutions, including the insurance companies, had already scuppered it.
Foreign policy — or perhaps it should be foreign practice — provides even better examples of the difficulties of directing politically change. Whatever U.S. President Lyndon Johnson hoped to do in Vietnam, he was so hopelessly embroiled in the momentum and institutions of warfare, military production and the draft at home that he was politically helpless — and short of a domestic catastrophe to provide him with a momentum for political change.
Even U.S. President Ronald Reagan had to conduct foreign policy by subterfuge and through secretive subordinates. No American president has succeeded in taking more than a few tentative steps toward a resolution of conflict in the Middle East. This is not because of the overweening power of the Jewish lobby.
U.S. political paralysis on the Middle East is more a product of historic interests — from dividing Arab countries and ensuring they didn’t go communist during the Cold War; from quietly keeping good relations with the oil-producing Arab states, which need to maintain their enmity to Israel in order to bid for leadership of the Arab and Muslim worlds; from an historic lack of interest in these West Asian countries that were in the purlieu of France and Britain; and so on.
Were it not for the crisis of 9/11, a catastrophe out of America’s control, there would not, even now, be a momentum for war with Iraq.
This is not to argue that politics changes nothing. But politics, as the conscious, collective desire to risk conflict for a good cause, is not something that political institutions are designed to make happen. Perhaps the opposite is true, producing only a massive cynicism. And given the almost insuperable difficulty of interesting voters in anything that happens outside their patch, then foreign policy is more bedeviled than any other area by its immunity to political direction.
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