Friday, July 13, 2018

Special Relationship

Presenting his diplomatic credentials to King George III at Saint James's Palace on June 1, 1785, American Minister John Adams famously said: "I shall esteem myself the happiest of men if I can be instrumental in recommending my country more and more to your Majesty’s royal benevolence, and of restoring an entire esteem, confidence and affection—or, in better words, the old good nature and the old good humor between people, who, though separated by an ocean, and under different governments, have the same language, a similar religion, and kindred blood.”

Well, we still have "the same language" (sort of), and the so-called "special relationship" between us and our "mother country" (always more aspirational than actual) has survived more or less, again more as an aspiration than anything else. 

In its modern form, the "special relationship" dates back to when it really mattered most - in World War II. The term itself is credited to most Americans' favorite Brit, Winston Churchill, who certainly went out of his way to cultivate a "special relationship" with FDR as part of a long-term strategy to save Britain (and in the process Western civilization). Churchill's understanding of the  "special relationship" was clearly expressed at the end of his most famous parliamentary address, delivered on June 4, 1940, in the aftermath of the retreat from Dunkirk:

"Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old."

The wartime "special relationship" was obviously a mater of survival for Britain and always meant more to Churchill than to FDR, to Britain than to the US. The post-war "special relationship" (although real enough in military and intelligence terms) has also probably always meant more to Britain than to the US, although its importance for the US - especially in relationship to the culturally much more foreign rest of Europe - should not be undervalued either.

It remains to be seen, however, what may be left of this "special relationship" today, given our President's neo-isolationism. President Trump is said to be a Churchill fan - one reason, perhaps, for setting last night's dinner at Churchill's birthplace at Blenheim Palace (not to mention it being conveniently in Oxfordshire rather than near London). The welcome at Blenheim and today's even grander welcome at Windsor will no doubt impress the President. At his press conference with Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump (whose mother, of course, was British) spoke positively about our "special relationship." And certainly there remain rooted in the American outlook residues of the emotional bonds that John Adams called "the old good nature and the old good humor" (although diminishingly so, as fewer and fewer Americans learn or know anything about our history).

But, unlike Churchill and FDR, Trump seems impervious to the deeper meaning of any relationship - except in competitive, transactional, zero-sum terms. With such a destructive outlook upon the world, what can be salvaged?

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