Warm U.S.-British ties: now merely a memory? In post-Thatcher era, 'special' bond frays

January 17, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- The British government has made it clear that i will take part in further attacks on Iraq if necessary -- an announcement that will be interpreted in certain quarters here to mean that the "special relationship" with the United States is still alive and working.

But there has been much anxiety lately about the "special relationship," and most of it tends toward the conclusion that the historic coincidence of policy and world view held by the two pre-eminent English-speaking powers -- a point of view fortified by shared experiences and culture over many years -- may already be a memory.

Thus, the pertinent questions posed are: Is the relationship intact? Or is it alive only in the minds of an older and shrinking group of Britons, and an even smaller coterie of Americans, a conviction kept buoyant by nostalgia and wishful thinking? And if it is gone, is its loss to be regretted?

Edward Heath, the former Conservative Party leader, was asked by a colleague in a House of Commons debate on Europe not long ago to "reaffirm his belief in the special relationship that we have with the United States." He gave an unexpected answer.

"On the lawn of the White House, in front of President Nixon," he recalled, "I said that there was no such thing as a special relationship. . . .

"To take that view [that there is] is to show no understanding of international relations. . . . The Americans do not refer to a special relationship."

The special relationship was forged during World War II by Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the fight against Germany. It was deepened during the Cold War, through the sharing of nuclear technology and coordination of nuclear policies and strategies, not to mention intelligence, between London and Washington.

Reagan-Thatcher bond

The historian Lawrence Freedman of London's Kings College believes one of the most intimate periods occurred during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who were ideological mates. Since the passing from power of those two, and the end of the Cold War -- which was the central adhesive of it -- the special relationship has been weakening.

The election of Bill Clinton, some believe, may send it finally into oblivion.

The political affinity between Mr. Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher "served to keep the relationship going," said Sir Michael Franklin of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, adding that "that condition won't obtain with the Clinton administration."

That may be understating the situation. There seems to be more promised by Mr. Clinton's arrival to power to contribute to the disintegration of the special relationship than there ever was in the Reagan-Thatcher affinity to hold it together.

The seeds of possible estrangement between the United States and Britain were sown during the 1992 presidential campaign. They include interference by agents of John Major's government in that campaign on behalf of President Bush, a likely policy difference between Mr. Major and Mr. Clinton over Northern Ireland, and Britain's responses to two current international crises -- those in Somalia and in the former Yugoslavia.

In political terms, Republicans tend to have a certain ideological compatibility with British Conservatives, which explains both the Reagan-Thatcher love match and the warmth between Mr. Bush and Mr. Major.

It was probably that affinity that inspired Mr. Major to send two Tory political operatives, Sir John Lacy and Mark Fullbrook, to Washington to help Mr. Bush try to defeat his Democratic challenger, the way Mr. Major put away his challenger from the Labor Party, Neil Kinnock, the previous April. Their advice was to intensify the personal attacks on Mr. Clinton.

It was this pro-Bush policy that also led the British government to open the Home Office files to those trying to find something incriminating about Mr. Clinton from his sojourn here as a student at Oxford, such as an attempt to take British citizenship to avoid the draft and Vietnam. Previous British governments did not allow such fishing expeditions through the state's files.

Anxiety about Clinton

In view of all this, no one was surprised that Mr. Clinton declined to meet with Mr. Major when the British prime minister visited the United States in December.

Every British government is fearful that a U.S. president will emerge who really cares about Northern Ireland and who is unimpressed by Britain's rationale for being there. Mr. Clinton may or may not prove to be that president, but if he is, no one should be surprised.

Mr. Clinton has already promised to appoint a special peace mediator for Northern Ireland and has committed his administration to supporting the McBride Principles of fair employment in the province. Both these positions the British government would view as interference in what it sees as a domestic dispute -- not an international one.

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