Thursday’s British House of Commons vote against Britain aiding in a Syrian intervention led me to center on one question: what will happen to the U.S.-UK relationship? Is that alliance now gravely weakened? Can it survive in a meaningful form?
Specifically, will Britain ever again be able to partner with the United States in any future military interventions? Without Britain, the United States will certainly carry on. It has a new best friend in France — french fries top of the menu now! — and maybe Turkey will be willing, too. In the UK, Prime Minister Cameron says Britain will remain committed to mobilising opposition to the Assad regime, delivering humanitarian aid, and deploring the use of chemical weapons.
George Osborne, the chancellor, said that the U.S.-UK relationship was a “very old one, very deep and operates on many layers.” President Obama, in an astonishingly passionate speech he gave to the UK Parliament in May 2011, agreed, calling it “one of the oldest, one of the strongest alliances the world has ever known.”
After the vote, both sides did a bit of squirming, saying that democracies sometimes bite leaders’ bottoms. And, to be sure, the UK and the U.S. have taken quite different views since World War Two — on the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Suez, on Vietnam, on the U.S. invasion of Grenada — with “bruises on both sides” (as a U.S. memo on the Grenada row between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan put it), but no lasting damage.
Yet a former British ambassador to the U.S. — speaking anonymously — told me he thought that this was a profound moment, rather than just an awkward episode. He is likely to be right: the business end of the special relationship — the willingness of the UK to partner the U.S. in military actions — is likely being held hostage to British public opinion. That public is in no mood to accept warnings of future but unproven risks, judgments based on intelligence and strong leadership into entanglement in foreign wars. Indeed, “intelligence” is now seen, among many, as equal to “stupidity.”