The special relationship—or, as they write it in Britain, the Special Relationship—between the United States and the United Kingdom is one of those partnerships that everyone talks about but few understand. Ian Buruma’s stimulating and highly readable “The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit” is a brisk but thorough history of the relationship under the 13 American presidents and 16 British prime ministers in the postwar era.
The special relationship as we know it today, Mr. Buruma argues, was an emanation from Winston Churchill’s fertile brain. Faced with the decline of the empire he loved, Churchill adapted the hoary idea of a deep bond between the British and the Americans to new conditions. Thanks to a unique ability to influence the United States, Churchill argued, Britain could continue to shape world events even as its power decayed.
Churchill did more than establish the modern framework of Anglo-American relations, Mr. Buruma shows. In particular, the example of Churchill’s courageous stand against appeasement in 1938-40 haunts both presidents and prime ministers to this day. Whether Margaret Thatcher was standing firm in the Falklands or stiffening George H.W. Bush’s spine for the First Gulf War, she was channeling the Churchillian spirit.
The partnership has not always worked well. Churchill’s immediate successor, Anthony Eden, saw Egyptian president Gamal Nasser as a new Hitler and denounced any compromise over the Suez Canal as another Munich. In the resulting Suez Crisis of 1956, President Eisenhower forced Eden into a humiliating retreat.
Even after Suez, the idea of the special relationship was not something Britain was willing to discard. Harold Macmillan, Eden’s courtly successor, immediately got to work to rebuild the relationship, shifting his attentions from Eisenhower to Kennedy in 1961. Macmillan obtained access to American nuclear weapons research; from Kennedy, Macmillan’s artful sleeve-tugging obtained an agreement to give Britain access to the then-coveted Polaris missile system.
The discussion in Britain of both Churchill and the special relationship has become a battlefront in the debate over membership in the European Union—a debate that continues to rage even with Britain having formally left. For many in the Remain camp, the idea that Britain can still play a world role independent of Europe, and that the best way to do that is to double down on its relationship with the United States, is a Churchillian fantasy that paved the way to Brexit. Britain, critics of the Churchill mystique and the special relationship insist, must put these childish dreams behind it and come to terms with a sober reality in which the EU is its only real option.
Over and over again, they say, British prime ministers come hat in hand to Washington. Over and over again, they influence Washington debates only at the margins. Britain’s loyal support for the United States often leaves it looking more like an American poodle than a Churchillian lion. As Mr. Buruma describes it, a 1965 cartoon on the cover of the satirical British magazine Private Eye showed then Prime Minister Harold Wilson pulling down LBJ’s pants to lick his behind, with the U.S. president thinking, “I’ve heard of a special relationship, but this is ridiculous.”
Mr. Buruma comes down, mildly and moderately, on the Europeanist side. Despite fiascoes like the George W. Bush and Tony Blair partnership that led to the Iraq War, he sees much to admire in seven decades of Anglo-American cooperation. And he is far too honest not to acknowledge that whatever can be said in its favor, the EU is anything but a utopia that will fulfill Britain’s dreams at a trivial cost.
“The Churchill Complex” is a rich and rewarding book, the best overview that exists of Anglo-American relations from Churchill-FDR to the “bromance” between Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. Mr. Buruma’s personality sketches of both British and American leaders are as insightful as they are sharp. Edward Heath was “a patriotic Englishman who spoke very bad French.” Jimmy Carter’s “earnestness and priggish demeanor” made his worldly British interlocutors feel queasy, especially when guests at White House dinners “were asked to hold hands while Carter said grace.”
One wishes, however, that Mr. Buruma had looked harder at the American perspective on a relationship that, though uncapitalized, carries more weight in Washington than the British sometimes understand. The British tend to see the relationship through a transactional lens: How much influence do we get in return for the support we give?
The American perspective, conveniently perhaps, is less about quid pro quo and more about a community of interest. The countries remain close, many American policy makers believe, less because British prime ministers dance to American tunes than because British and American interests and values, though not identical, are broadly aligned. Britain and the United States end up on the same side of so many questions so often that over time their cooperation has become institutionalized at a deep level. The “Five Eyes” alliance—a U.S.-U.K. intelligence-sharing agreement that includes Australia, Canada and New Zealand—is only one piece of a complex partnership that embraces economic, military, political and legal cooperation, with members of each country’s military and civilian services embedded in the other’s government.
The most important British foreign policy error since World War II is not the attempt to maintain a close Anglo-American relationship, but the failure to build more effective partnerships with Canada, Australia and New Zealand. If these four English speaking democracies and important economic and security allies of the United States spoke with one voice, that voice would receive a more attentive and respectful hearing than any one of the four speaking alone, not only in Washington, but around the world.
To many Americans observers, the British debate over the special relationship looks like an exercise in denial. It is the poor performance of the British economy, not the sentimental fondness of its prime ministers for America or their addiction to Churchillian rhetoric, that leaves Britain with such unsatisfactory foreign-policy choices. In 1938, the last peacetime year in Europe before World War II, GDP per capita was about 20% higher in Britain than in Germany and about 40% higher than in France. Today Britain’s per capita GDP lags Germany’s and is roughly equal to France’s. If Britain led Germany and France as it did before the war, Washington, Paris and Berlin would all be much more receptive to British proposals than any of them are now.
There are islands of excellence in Britain even today—the financial sector, a handful of top universities and, by European standards, a robust IT industry. But the source of British power in the 19th century was a cutting-edge economy that outproduced and, for much of the time, out-innovated its rivals. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his chief adviser Dominic Cummings have talked about making Britain a world leader in scientific research. It is on the success of initiatives like this, not on journeys to either Brussels or Washington, that Britain’s 21st-century fate will depend.
Read in Wall Street Journal