Alphen, Netherlands. 13 February. When asked at the Franco-American summit this week if France had replaced Britain as America’s special friend President Obama replied that it was like asking him to choose between his two beautiful daughters. President Hollande replied that France and America had helped each other win freedom and that France was America’s oldest ally – against Britain. In so doing President Hollande ignored the many tens of thousands of British soldiers lying dead in Commonwealth war cemeteries across France who also died for France’s freedom. President Obama ignored the many thousands of British soldiers killed and maimed supporting American policy this past decade. Clearly, Britain’s relationship with the US is being downgraded by this administration whilst France’s relationship is being upgraded. Why?
1. Washington has a very short memory. All that matters to the Americans is what you are doing for them today not yesterday. Yesterday in Geneva a senior NATO official asked me why it seemed France was able to do far more with its armed forces today than Britain. Simple. The French were not in Iraq and refused to commit fully to Afghanistan. There are still 8000 British troops supporting the US in Afghanistan. Moreover, the British armed forces have been seriously denuded over the past decade giving full support to the US in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
2. Paris has successfully manipulated the British Parliament’s wise rejection of last summer’s deeply flawed American 'neither one thing or another' limited strike against Syria for which France offered full support. The US is also supporting French operations in Mali for which Britain has only offered some modest logistical support and a training mission.
3. The Obama administration does not like Britain very much. Some of the serious heavy-hitters in the Administration from the President down really believe that the future special relationship is with an EU led by Germany and France. Britain – Euro-sceptic in Chief – is seen as a troublemaker for not bowing to the ‘inevitability’ of further European integration. Indeed, the Americans are quietly trying to force British compliance.
4. Washington today simply fails or refuses to see the fundamental issues of political and democratic principle that Britain is fighting for. They are blinded by the belief that a ‘USE’ would be a kind of putative USA, rather than the inward-looking, neo-pacifist bureaucratic, dogmatic and intransigent institution which no American would ever begin to consider legitimate. The coming treatment of Switzerland will be proof of that.
5. France, whilst utterly frustrated with current EU defence still believes the future is European. The EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy is utterly stymied and unlikely to lead soon to either a reformed or improved European defence effort. Therefore, for the time-being a France also worried by the growing influence of Germany over the European project is signalling a move towards the US and NATO.
6. London completely miscalculated and under-estimated the impact on Washington of the military-slashing 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review. To the Americans it signalled a determined British retreat from influence which an Anglophobic administration was all too happy to seize upon.
7. The whole concept of a ‘special relationship’ was and is over-blown. There was a moment during World War Two when the Anglo-American relationship was special. However, after the war the Americans were ruthless in their treatment of Britain, particularly over the repayment of war debt. Over time the ‘special relationship’ simply became a fig-leaf the Americans offered British leaders to mask Britain’s rapid decline. There were moments when the politics of London and Washington aligned, such as Reagan-Thatcher in the 1980s. However, the ‘special relationship’ is today little more than a metaphor for Britain’s poodleism.
So, a rapport spécial? Non! First, France still believes that the future of Europe’s defence should in time be European and focussed on the EU. Second, France refuses to see NATO as anything other than an alliance of last resort that should only be used for collective defence. Third, when a Republican administration eventually returns it could well be that the politics of London and Washington become re-aligned. Fourth, with a confirmed defence investment budget of £160bn/$261bn the British will re-invest far more in defence than a France trapped in the Eurozone. Moreover, excluding France the British defence investment plan is bigger than the rest of NATO Europe combined.
The real lessons for London, Paris and the rest of Europe are this; abandon romantic notions of a special relationship/rapport spécial with the Americans. Yes, European allies will still have value to the Americans as a pool of democratic legitimacy for American action. However, the real test of any relationship with and for the Americans will be the extent to which an ally offers an increasingly Asia-Pacific focused and over-stretched America hard support. And, if London plays its current cards right and stops retreating both in political mind and fact within a decade the only real military show in Europe will be a British show.
Power is what influences Washington – nothing more, nothing less.