Tony Blair’s decision to step down as British Prime Minister at the end of June marks the end of an era in US-British relations. Blair’s extraordinarily close alliance with President Bush defied all expectations and has been a tour de force on the world stage since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. He will almost certainly be replaced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, an uncharismatic, somber figure who is unlikely to set the world alight. The special relationship will continue under Brown, but it will be a low key affair, with a greater emphasis on behind-the-scenes negotiations than high profile public displays of unity. While Blair was loved by an adoring American public, Brown will struggle even for name recognition across the Atlantic.
Blair leaves behind a highly visible British stamp on the world stage, with his country playing a major role in Afghanistan and Iraq, and enjoying the fruits of economic growth domestically. It is also, though, a Britain that is far weaker military, seriously overstretched by her overseas commitments, and highly vulnerable at home to Islamic terrorism. Blair’s Britain is also a nation whose sovereignty has been further eroded within the European Union and whose ability to shape its own destiny is threatened by the rise of a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and a European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP).
Blair and the Anglo-American Alliance
Tony Blair’s main strength as Prime Minister has been his eloquent and passionate leadership in confronting global terrorism. He should be given huge credit for his central role in the global War on Terror and for the courage of his convictions in going to war in Iraq in the face of tremendous opposition from much of his own party and several weak-kneed European governments. His steadfast support for the United States in the four years since 2001 and his key role in building the international coalition of the willing demonstrated principled leadership as well as vision. While Blair’s approval rating in Britain barely scrapes 30%, 70% of Americans still have a favorable impression of him.
Under Blair’s leadership over 45,000 British military personnel participated in the liberation of Iraq, by any measure a huge contribution for a nation of Britain’s size. More than 7,000 British troops are still based in southern Iraq, and 148 British soldiers have sacrificed their lives there. More than 5,000 British troops are engaged in military operations against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and a further 1,500 are due to be deployed this summer.
Unfortunately Blair could do little to stem the tide of anti-Americanism among the British public, who became increasingly disillusioned with his unquestioning support for U.S. foreign policy. While the Special Relationship was strengthened publicly under Blair’s premiership, its long-term future is threatened by the rise of anti-Americanism in Britain. There is growing public disillusionment in the UK with British support for U.S. foreign policy, coupled with a mounting rejection of American global leadership.
In an September 2006 Financial Times/Harris poll of opinion in five of the EU’s largest member states, a staggering 33% of Britons surveyed described the United States as “the greatest threat to global security.” (Just 21% of British respondents named Iran, and 10% North Korea). Nearly 70% of Britons questioned in a November 2006 Guardian/ICM poll stated that U.S. policy had made the world “less safe” since 2001. And just nine percent of British respondents in a March 2007 YouGov poll agreed with the proposition that “Britain should continue to base its foreign policy on its close relationship with the United States.”
Under Blair, the British Government failed to demonstrate to the British public that there are tangible benefits from the Anglo-American alliance, and that it operates as a two-way street. The rise of anti-Americanism is not a temporary phenomenon, but a dangerous long-term trend, that will have far-reaching implications both for the special relationship as well as America’s ability to project power on the world stage.
Gordon Brown and the Future of U.S.-UK Relations
Gordon Brown is unlikely to fundamentally transform the nature of the Anglo-American alliance when he enters Downing Street. He will, though, adjust its tempo and alter the dynamics that drive it. Brown, with a large base of support on the left of the Labour Party and whose ties to Washington are mainly to Democrats, will be unlikely to emulate the close friendship that Blair has developed with Bush. Nor is he likely to win the kind of adoration from the American public that the Prime Minister gained after 9/11. There will certainly be no repeat of the extraordinarily successful ‘Butch and Sundance’ partnership that has defined the US-UK relationship since 9/11.
Brown’s approach will be less sentimental than Blair’s, based on a sharper-edged analysis of what he defines as the British national interest, including more open confrontation with Washington over issues such as international development assistance, poverty reduction, trade, and global warming. Brown has called for “a modern Marshall Plan for the developing world — a new deal between the richest countries and the poorest countries.” The centerpiece of his proposal is a doubling of development aid from Western nations, combined with a complete write-off of multilateral and bilateral debt owed by the world’s poorest countries.
Brown will be less likely than Blair to spearhead international efforts in the war on terrorism and will be under pressure to bring home British troops fighting in Iraq. His views on some of the biggest issues of the day, the Iranian nuclear program for example, remain an enigma, and it is uncertain whether Brown will back Washington’s hawkish line toward rogue states such as Iran and Syria. If the United States were to use military force against Iran’s nuclear facilities, there can be no guarantee that a Brown-led British government would provide military, strategic or political support.
Blair’s Place in History
Tony Blair will be remembered rightly as a staunch ally of the United States, who stood shoulder to shoulder with the American people in the dark days following the 2001 attacks. He understood the value of the Anglo-American special relationship, and enhanced Britain’s standing on the world stage as a result.
Blair did not however ensure that defence spending kept pace with growing military commitments, and oversaw the gutting of some of Britain’s most famous regiments and a decline in British defense spending. The Union Jack may be flying from Baghdad to Kabul, but British military capacity has been sharply curtailed under the Blair government, and it would be impossible today for Britain to fight a war on the scale of the 1982 Falklands conflict on her own. British defence spending has fallen from 4.4 % of GDP in the late 1980s to 2.5% in 2006, its lowest level since the 1930s.
Although a tower of strength as an international leader of the War on Terror, Blair turned a blind eye to the rise of Islamic extremism inside Britain itself, and the mirage of domestic tranquility was shattered by the July 7, 2005 London bombings that claimed 55 lives. Today Britain is a hornet’s nest of Islamic militants, with several hundred al-Qaeda terrorist suspects in the U.K., some of whom have been trained in camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Tony Blair will rightly be regarded by historians as one the most important (and indeed controversial) British leaders of the post-war generation. However, he should not be viewed on a par with either Winston Churchill or Margaret Thatcher, both of whom fundamentally altered the course of history and played major roles in defeating the two most dangerous ideologies of modern times: fascism and communism. Through her leadership Lady Thatcher sparked a worldwide political and economic revolution, that has influenced policy from Santiago to Beijing. It is highly unlikely that ‘Blairism’ will ever be a household name.
Unlike Blair, Churchill and Thatcher both had a crystal clear understanding of the British national interest and the need to defend the sovereignty of the British nation. Blair, with his support for the European Constitution and the ESDP compromised both. His key failing as British leader was his misguided belief that Britain can be both America’s closest ally and part of a politically and economically integrated Europe. Roughly half of British laws now originate in Brussels, a shocking state of affairs that must be reversed. It will be up to future British Governments to ensure that Britain regains its position as a fully sovereign nation, and the long-term future of the special relationship will depend upon it.