More than 50 years ago, the former American Secretary of State Dean Acheson observed that Great Britain had lost an empire and had yet to find a role. After Barack Obama’s positively brutal intervention in the referendum debate, our post-imperial search for national identity is set to continue.
Let’s clear away some of the undergrowth. The United States has let Britain down before.
Confronted by Adolf Hitler, one of the most wicked and cruel tyrants ever to walk the planet, the USA stood back and watched until late 1941. Unmoved by the fall of France in 1940, it took an attack by the Japanese to trigger American entry into the war. Meanwhile, intent on breaking Britain’s global power, the Americans imposed stringent terms on the Lend-Lease programme that just about kept a beleaguered Great Britain afloat.
Worse was to come in 1956 when Eisenhower pulled the plug on Britain and France at Suez, our worst foreign policy humiliation and one that led to the resignation of Prime Minister Anthony Eden and the rise of Arab nationalism that we are still grappling with today. It is little comfort that the then President soon came to regret his catastrophic decision.
Even the Reagan-Thatcher years were not without conflict between these supposedly closest of allies. Behind the scenes, Thatcher was forced to accept compromise US proposals for a temporary protectorate for the Falklands Islands, only for the Argentine junta to reject them and pave the way for an eventual outright British military victory. She was also left in the dark, much to her fury, when Reagan launched an invasion of the Commonwealth country of Grenada.
Tony Blair and George W Bush worked hand in glove over the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The Iraq invasion is discredited now, mainly in the UK because Blair went to war on the ostensible grounds that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and posed an immediate threat to UK security. Both countries wearied of the wars, which proved intractable when it came to imposing a peace. But when one looks at the mayhem in the Middle East today, at least part of the cause is Obama’s decision prematurely to pull out his forces in 2009, so laying the ground for the rise of the monsters of the so-called Islamic State.
Isolationism has replaced interventionism as the watchword of US foreign policy and America’s patchy role as the world’s policeman has been largely abandoned. The migrant hordes sweeping across Europe, posing an unprecedented terrorist threat and social dislocation, are the direct consequence of American (and British) refusal to confront the root cause of the chaos – the vicious ideology and conduct of the so-called Islamic State.
May be, after Obama’s contemptuous dismissal of Britain’s legitimate desire to reassert its national independence, we can forget about the Special Relationship once and for all. To tell your oldest and most trusted ally to “get to the back of the queue” is an insult of the most spectacular proportions.
Excuses for the President’s arrogance and insensitivity are hard to find. Obama may not much like the British (as Boris Johnson not so helpfully pointed out) but he cannot be so ignorant of the workings of the EU to fail to see the difference between a supranational body like the UN and an emerging federal superstate happy to crush nationhood under foot. As plenty of people have pointed out, the US would not contemplate sharing courts and parliaments with its trading partners in Mexico and Canada, but is perfectly happy to lecture the British about the wonders of a 28-country political union. Double standards is only the half of it.
Supporters of Brexit are shocked and angry that the United States could behave in such a high-handed way, saying that it could take 10 years for a trade deal to be agreed between Washington and a post-Brexit London. And, of course, it is true that not every American politician shares the lefty Obama’s enthusiasm for vast, slow-moving, incompetent bureaucracies of the kind to be found in Brussels. It is also true that if Britain does vote to leave on June 23, Obama will have only six months at the helm, hardly time for him to drag himself away from the golf course and settle down to rebuilding broken bridges.
That challenge, if it comes, will fall to another American leader and if it is Trump or Ted Cruz, may be the approach will be different to the cold, detached, lofty Obama, who has spent eight years in the White House doing precious little other than opine about the parlous state of the world.
This weekend there is much pessimism in the Leave camp. With the help of his golfing buddy, Dave seems to be winning the crucial argument over the economy and which option offers the best chance of securing Britain’s future prosperity. Big brother Obama has rammed the point home, with brutal if quite misleading clarity.
It remains to be seen how the British public reacts. Obama may be vaguely popular here in liberal circles, the kind that control the BBC and the less popular papers. But he does risk a backlash from a people who, historically, have not taken kindly to be pushed around by anyone, including the Americans.
Which brings us back to the starting point. Does 21st Century Britain have the self-belief, the courage to turn its back on a failing incipient superstate and forge for itself a distinctive new role in the world? As Iain Duncan Smith said in his Sunday Times interview yesterday, Cameron and Osborne have “lost faith in Britain” by constantly claiming that we are incapable of restoring our status as an independent country committed to engaging with and trading with the wider world.
The question on June 23 is the one posed by Acheson in 1962. Does Britain have no higher ambition than to be a bigger version of Belgium, without the rights enjoyed by so many countries like the USA? The right to control our borders, to manage our immigration, to strike our own trade deals, to spend our taxes as we see fit and to make our own laws enforceable in our own courts. And do we have the wisdom to see that the EU is embarked on a suicidal mission – to cram together its disparate member states in an identikit Europe?
A bigger Belgium or a self-confident nation state? That is the choice we face.
(Image: Maik Meid)