Lee Ruddin: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Anglo-American Consultative Relationship





Lee Ruddin is Roundup Editor at HNN. He lives in England.

For all the talk surrounding the rise of the East and interest in the “new” economic powers, the “special relationship” between older, Western states continues to interest authors and correspondents alike.

The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee was as good a reason as any for an op-ed column, and a fair few were penned and posted online. Writing for The Huffington Post (UK), Lord Alan Watson of Richmond, co-author of The Queen and the U.S.A., talks about Elizabeth II’s ‘feat of monarchical longevity’ while H. Edward Mann, his co-author, applauds (in the same “internet newspaper”) her ‘life-long and constant support’ for Britain’s transatlantic cousin. President Obama, himself, weighed in with a video message saying that the Queen was a ‘living witness’ to the strength of the Washington-Whitehall alliance and the ‘chief source of its resilience.’

A month hardly goes by without a book being published on Churchill and May was no different with Peter Clarke’s Mr Churchill’s ProfessionThe Statesman as Author and the Book that Defined the ‘Special Relationship’ hitting shelves. The former Cambridge don’s hardback is an engaging tome about the four-volume literary work A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (published between 1956 and 1958) that ostensibly undergirds the Anglo-American relationship and is certainly worth a read.

As frequent as the publication of new tracts on the theme of Anglo-American relations are, though, it is the number of news reports which quickly overwhelm the most ardent Americanophile: If you are not learning about the forthcoming disclosure of George Bush and Tony Blair’s pre-Iraq conversation, David Cameron and Barack Obama agreeing on the need for an ‘immediate plan’ to resolve the Eurozone crisis and the latter snubbing the former’s ‘problem[atic]’ austerity measures, you are digesting quotes from General Sir David Richards about Britain being forced to abandon the “special relationship” with America due to enforced military cuts, reading that the Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) has reaffirmed the Organization of American States’ resolution calling for Falklands negotiations or watching Iain Duncan Smith testify (as the first foreign Secretary of State to do so) before the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee.

Those in need of some sort of Anglo-American fix would have found it hard-going last month (either because it was the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 or, like me, because there was so little commentary on the bicentenary) with the wall-to-wall coverage of “Watergate” focusing purely on how events forty years ago changed American journalism. Do not get me wrong, what Los Angeles Times columnist Matt Pearce says about “the affair” being ‘a landmark moment in modern American history’ is a given. Yet a more fascinating perspective relates to how domestic considerations influenced foreign policy and how the political scandal led Richard Nixon to abandon what I refer to as a consultative relationship with Britain.  

It has become a truism that the “special relationship” reached its nadir with Edward Heath and Nixon residing in Number 10 and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue respectively. This is correct, but only to a degree, since relations between the 46th Prime Minister and 37th President started off “special” enough. Heath was, despite voluminous commentary to the contrary, anything but anti-American; he only eschewed relations with the United States in favour of a whole-hearted commitment to the European Economic Community because he fundamentally believed that the Europeans should shoulder more of the burden within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and become a true partner of the Americans.

His vigour as a Cold War warrior and support on Vietnam (albeit verbal) certainly did not go unnoticed by Messrs. Nixon and Henry Kissinger, either, with the National Security Advisor referring, in December 1972, to Heath as “the honorable exception” when it came to European leaders not backing the President’s “Linebacker II” bombing campaign. Bilateral relations were so “special” going into the spring of 1973 that Kissinger consulted, much to the annoyance of State Department officials, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Deputy Under-Secretary Thomas Brimelow to help draft the Soviet-American declaration renouncing nuclear war. ‘Far from being bit players lurking in the wings of the Cold War,’ Stephen R. Twigge writes in Diplomatic History journal, ‘British officials were integral to the negotiations and largely responsible for drafting the treaty.’ But as Twigge goes on to explain in “Operation Hullabaloo: Henry Kissinger, British Diplomacy, and the Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War”,

‘[T]he dictates imposed in maintaining an exclusive bilateral relationship with Washington were often at variance with the need to develop a European security identity. The strain soon became evident and placed considerable stress on the transatlantic relationship. The outbreak of the fourth Arab-Israeli [W]ar in October 1973 exacerbated these divisions and, according to some commentators, posed the severest threat to alliance unity in its history.’

The FCO official makes a very important point here. Although the Nixon administration had a “cavalier attitude to consulting with allies” (as John Graham, Private Secretary to the Foreign Secretary, Alec Douglas-Home, said in the wake of Nixon’s opening to China in July 1971), unilaterally ending the direct convertibility of the dollar to gold (which Heath thought “destroyed” exchange rates and undermined the international system) and pursing a unilateralist line on the Indo-Pakistan War, the secret nuclear alert of 25 October 1973 (less than a week after Nixon dismissed the independent special prosecutor and accepted the resignations of both the Deputy and Attorney General), which Heath only heard about on a news agency wire, caused the PM to express his displeasure at the C-in-C’s behaviour in no uncertain terms:

‘We have to face the fact that the American action has done immense harm, I believe, both in this country and worldwide. We must not underestimate the impact on the rest of the world. An American President in the Watergate position apparently prepared to go to such lengths at a moment’s notice without consultation with his allies … without any justification in the military situation at the time.’

Files suggest that Kissinger, the then newly-appointed Secretary of State, misled the British ambassador in Washington, Lord Cromer, over the U.S. alert, notwithstanding the fact that the worldwide nuclear stand-off (in response to Leonid Brezhnev’s threat to intervene in the Yom Kippur War) covered American troops stationed in Britain. This action, coming at the height of the Watergate scandal, was in stark contrast to pre-Watergate reports when, Cromer recalled (Mary Elise Sarotte informs readers of Fredrik Logevall and Andrew Preston’s (eds.) Nixon in the World: American Foreign Relations, 1969-1977), “the most powerful nation in the world invok[ed] the aid of a foreign government to do its drafting for it, while totally excluding its own Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

The U.S. decision to unilaterally move its military to Defense Condition III (DEFCON III) was not an isolated one but merely added insult to injury after Kissinger called for a “Year of Europe” on 23 April 1973, a week after presidential aides H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman were implicated in the Watergate cover up. ‘For Henry Kissinger to announce a Year of Europe without consulting any of us was rather like me’, Heath wrote in his memoirs (The Couse of My Life), ‘standing between the lions in Trafalgar Square and announcing that we were embarking on a year to save America!’

Readers may be forgiven for thinking that the Anglo-American consultative relationship ended forty years ago with the Watergate scandal. Yet the fourth volume of Alastair Campbell’s diary, The Burden of PowerCountdown to Iraq, illustrates that post-imperial Britain continues to be consulted by post-Watergate America and that Blair – like Brimelow three decades before him – played a quite ‘extraordinary’ role as chief foreign-policy consultant – at the expense of the Vice-President’s Office as well as the State Department in this instance – when it came to taking the UN route over Iraq. After reading what Amir Taheri has to say in Standpoint magazine (UK), about post-Saddam Iraq ‘remain[ing] the best hope for democratisation in the Middle East,’ it is my sincere hope that such consultations remain a constant in the Anglo-American relationship.



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