Posted on 22-10-2009
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

Since World War II the British and American governments have harped on the special relationship between the “mother country” and the first of its children to leave. An interesting read from last week’s Christian Science Monitor on how special public opinion in the United Kingdom finds the relationship.  It is not surprising that the British could resent the country that replaced it as the global behemoth.  The loss of empire after World War II, the economic malaise and then the jarring realization during the Suez Crisis that it could not operate a foreign policy in opposition to the United States are bound to hurt the self esteem of a country that thought the sun would never set on it empire (notwithstanding the prestige of an undeserved permanent spot on the Security Council with fellow second tier power France).

Even though it is still about the 7th largest economy in the world the United Kingdom still tries to punch above its weight with the 4th largest defense expenditures in the world  (just below China almost twice as much as India without anywhere near the same security threats).  The history of colonial rule and the aggressive attempts to remain relevant still keep the United Kingdom as a possible bogeyman for tyrants from Iran to Zimbabwe.  At other times it can cause embarrassments, like the spats with India in the past decade from clumsy attempts to interfere in the Kashmir dispute.  See here and here.

It is difficult for a major power to adjust to a diminished status through slow decline.   The declines of previous major powers whether abrupt like Sweden, Germany and Imperial Japan or over a longer period like Spain, Austria-Hungary. Ottoman Turkey and Manchu China received a major assist from military defeats.  The British case is unusual in that it fought and won two world wars only to find itself exhausted and surpassed by its erstwhile allies and then its former foes.  The absence of that defining defeat probably made it harder to accept a diminished world standing.  Not that defeat can always bring such objectivity.  France is still overcompensating for the triple  debacles of World War II, Algeria and the Indo-China war culminating in the decisive defeat at Dien Bien Phu.  But however annoying the Gallic Rooster can be to Americans, French self esteem has not suffered from a policy of supine abasement that the “special relationship” entails.  When was the last time a French leader was called the poodle of any foreign power (even if the string of French military debacles since 1870 have prompted other phrases)?

So Britain frets that the torture and arrest of Barack Obama’s grandfather and father when Kenya was a British colony may cause him to resent it.  A purported snub of the Prime Minister causes national hyperventilation. Why is the United Kingdom so keen for marks of favor from the occupant of the White House?  Who cares?  Its time British politicians publicly discussed whether the “special relationship” is worth the cost in national self esteem and human life.  With its wealth, the United Kingdom will not be entirely unimportant.  But by cutting loose some of its ties to the memories of past grandeur and operating within its means, it may be a happier one.

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