Britain's Wayward Son
Postcard From London
In doing just that, however, I quickly realized the extent to which those British concerns were no different than the ones I thought I had left behind. Europe really does pivot around America, and I saw just how tense and problematic that role makes our relationships with other countries. Americans are dangerously misunderstood in Europe, to be sure, and far more ominously, we Americans understand very little about ourselves.
It’s no surprise that many people in continental Europe lambast the U.S. as a hopelessly introverted country. Global interdependence is something they take for granted, and they react with understandable disbelief to recent U.S. decisions such as the withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the opposition to both the Kyoto agreement on global warming and the International Criminal Court.
But the dismay of the British, although no less urgent than on the European mainland, has a more subtle dimension. Despite myriad objections to much of U.S. foreign po licy, many government officials and media pundits nonetheless insist on developing a “special relationship” with the U.S. They reason that our two nations have more shared self-interest than exists with other countries, and they conclude that we should co nsult with each another on foreign policy issues before we turn to the wider international community. British Prime Minister Tony Blair uses this doctrine to justify support for a U.S. invasion of Iraq and for Britain’s continued commitment of military re sources to the war on terrorism and the campaign in Afghanistan.
Although those foreign policy questions are the subjects of as much controversy in Britain as they are in America, even many of Blair’s fiercest opponents nonetheless believe, whole-hear tedly, in the concept of special obligations between their country and the U.S. As with so much of the reproach of U.S. foreign policy I have heard on the ground—whether it comes from members of Parliament, taxi drivers or strangers in a pub—even the most bitter critics rest their vitriol on a foundation of deep respect and sympathy for America. They see the U.S. as a strong, vibrant and self-assured nation, and while they look up to America in many ways, they worry at the same time. Like aging mothers, t hey wonder if their most promising son, now grown up and on his own, is poised to run astray.
This family metaphor may sound bizarre to most Americans. For all our historical ties of heritage and culture with Britain, most of us find little more in com mon with Britain than with any other nation in Europe, aside from language. But the British still do feel close in a more general sense, and although I do not claim to fully understand the phenomenon, I suspect it owes something to the sheer volume of Ame rican mass media and culture Britain imports. South Park and Oprah dominate television, Ja Rule gets more radio play than Oasis, and Starbucks and McDonald’s are sometimes harder to escape here than back home. Every major nation has imported a wealth of A merican culture, to be fair, but the English can’t seem to get enough.
Whatever the source of the British fascination with America, I would venture that the average American feels little if any special camaraderie toward Britain. The American people d o not want a “special relationship” from a social or cultural perspective—the cultural exchange is largely a one-way street—and America’s ethos of self-sufficiency disposes it to oppose diplomatic entanglements if there is a choice.
And there is a choice, in the eyes of most Americans, because the U.S. is the single, uncontested world superpower and intends only to strengthen that position. Department of Defense plans set down well before Sept. 11 aim to guarantee “preeminence in any form of conflict within 20 years,” according to this sweeping national-security doctrine, Joint Vision 2020. It calls for “full spectrum dominance,” including vast superiority not only of the military, but also of communications, transportation and information technology. Its authors hope to make the U.S. virtually impervious to international influence.
Although many Britons may not realize just how farcical their special relationship seems to the American sensibility, they do realize the danger inherent in American unilateralism. Full spectrum dominance seems to require almost continual conflict, because a nation becomes a military threat as soon as it has the capacity to challenge U.S. leadership in many military and civilian areas—even if there is no intent to use that capacity against the U.S. or anyone else. U.S. dominance heralds a kind of technological, communications and economic hegemony imposed by America on the rest of the world.
The principles behind full spectrum dominance have controlled foreign poli cy thinking inside the Bush administration from Iraq and the war on terrorism to the environment and nuclear disarmament. Precisely because many Americans cannot see the threat to their own interests posed by such an ideology—and largely because political dissent on foreign policy has been all but silenced since Sept. 11—we need Britain’s help, but not as a partner in crime. We need a critical friend with the guts to look her erstwhile son in the eye and tell him to get back in line. The Blair government’s dote-and-nod approach toward America only encourages our disdain for dissenting views. But if Britain puts forward an alternative vision with enough conviction and repetition, then in time the American people will listen.
Blake Jennelle ’04, a Crimson editor, is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. After convincing the Brits that his name is neither Blair nor Bloke, he hopes to dispel the myth that Jerry Springer reflects mainstream American life—although he may not be the best examp le.›