Commentary

U.S. Benefits if Britain Is Wholeheartedly European

By Jonathan Clarke
This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on January 11, 1999.

In the course of a 1954 speech at the State Department, Winston Churchill commented that “only the English-speaking peoples count; together they can rule the world.” Now that the originally multilingual Desert Storm coalition has dissolved to its Anglophone bare bones of Desert Storm, events are apparently confirming the durability of Churchill’s insights. It is no secret that President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair spend hours together on the telephone, frequently engaged in discussion of bombing and other world-ruling enterprises.

For Clinton, the stalwart British support for his military adventures has been an unalloyed blessing. Even when his orders misfire, as in Sudan, he can still count on Blair’s endorsement. Such endorsements draw on a deep British sense of themselves as members of the global ruling class. Despite these days of diminished power, British diplomats still advertise the British willingness to share with the U.S. unpleasant military duties in dusty parts of the globe as the quality that distinguishes them from the “weaker brethren” among their European partners. In 1991, Britain’s enthusiastic participation in Desert Storm headed off a worrying U.S. flirtation with Germany as America’s preferred European partner.

Despite the obvious immediate benefits to the U.S. of Britain’s military steadfastness, it is doubtful whether Britain’s enduring romance with military bravura is in the long-term British or American interest. For it comes at the price of Britain’s ability to play a full role in Europe. Today, Blair finds himself in lockstep with the U.S. on matters military but on the outside of yet another seminal development in European institution-building, the introduction of the single European currency, the euro. This isolation echoes the events of 1963, when French President Charles de Gaulle delivered his fateful veto on Britain’s application to join Europe. At the time of that bombshell, then-British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan was closeted with President Kennedy on Bermuda discussing a new generation of nuclear weapons.


For several important reasons, the U.S. needs Britain at, in Blair’s words, “the heart of Europe.”


That Britain will join the European Union—probably within five years—is not in doubt. The mystery is why, no matter whether conservatives or socialists are in power, Britain once again cannot get to the European dance on time. It was not as though accession to the European Union lacked powerful advocates; the financial, industrial and labor communities were solidly in favor. On the economic fundamentals, Britain was well qualified to participate. Nonetheless, the British system somehow failed to deliver the necessary critical mass for commitment at the same time as the rest of Europe. The result will be an orgy of Margaret Thatcheresque theatrics when the time comes to join.

Britain’s half-heartedness toward Europe is not just a matter of mild regret for America. For several important reasons, the U.S. needs Britain at, in Blair’s words, “the heart of Europe.” First, on strategic grounds, Churchill’s notion of English-speaking primacy is a non-starter in today’s world. Saddam Hussein has gained significant sympathy by talking of an Anglo-American conspiracy against Iraq. Further, U.S. interests reach far more widely than Britain’s, for example in North Korea where Britain is not a player. To bolster these interests, the U.S. needs a far wider coalition basis than Britain alone. How much better Desert Fox would have been with more European Union participation. It is here that Britain can play its most valuable role.

American diplomats from Henry Kissinger to Richard Holbrooke have spoken derisively of the EU’s foreign policy potential. “Whom do you call?” they have both asked. This situation is improving, in part as the result of British initiatives such as last December’s agreement with France for a European force capable of independent action. To encourage this trend, the United States’ best ally is Britain. But British influence will be diminished so long as it fails to participate fully in all EU institutions.

On economic grounds, too, the U.S. needs a forceful EU contribution from Britain. On issues such as free trade and free markets, low taxation and low governmental regulation, and compatibility with U.S. legal practice, Britain stands closer to the U.S. than continental Europe. It is thus of great importance to the U.S. that the EU adheres as closely as possible to the British model.

This is not guaranteed. In a new commentary on the euro, former Reserve Bank board member Robert Solomon remarks that the new Europe will be a “much more closed economy.”

A quiet word from Clinton to Blair is needed. If in their next chat about whom to bomb, Clinton were to highlight the need for full EU participation by Britain, he would be doing a power of good to both countries.

Jonathan Clarke, a former member of the British diplomatic service, is a research fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.