A Chilled Relationship, For Now

By Sebastian Mallaby (THE WASHINGTON POST, 11/09/06):

British politics has delivered its own verdict on the war on terror. By a poignant coincidence, Tony Blair, the prime minister who has often been the world’s most forceful exponent of a virile response to militant Islam, became a political eunuch last week — just as the world was taking stock of the fifth anniversary of 9/11. A revolt within Blair’s Labor Party forced him to promise that he would be gone within a year. He had become too close to the foreign policy of George W. Bush: in short, too pro-American.

Blair has always been that way, even before those hijacked planes smashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In the 1990s he bonded with the Clinton team, promoting a new politics that eschewed the statist left and free-market right in favor of a Third Way synthesis. Ideas such as welfare reform and wage subsidies for poor workers were test-driven in the United States and then rolled out in Britain. The Blairites embraced the Clinton mix of pro-market economics and pro-poor social policies.

But Blair’s affinity with the United States went deeper than policy. His can-do optimism, his relentlessly on-message spin, his frank love of the camera: All would have been unremarkable in an American pol, but all challenged British tradition. Blair’s predecessors respected their countrymen’s distaste for showmanship, and they often seemed mousy when appearing alongside U.S. leaders. But Blair smiled his enormous chipmunk smile. He was even more upbeat than Americans.

It’s worth pondering these things as you contemplate the future of the war on terror. The United States has few allies in the world, and Blair’s forced promise to step down reduces America’s most faithful friend to lame-duck status. Under Blair’s leadership, the British did more than contribute troops to Afghanistan and Iraq. They contributed Blair’s singular, self-certain voice. Often the prime minister seemed to be acting as Bush’s chief spokesman and chief diplomat all rolled into one. He could make the arguments that the president struggled crudely to articulate — and make them sound sophisticated.

Once Blair is gone, nobody will play his role with comparable conviction. Gordon Brown, the all-but-anointed prime minister-in-waiting, vacations in Cape Cod, but he evidently feels no love for Bush’s foreign policy. David Cameron, the fresh leader of the opposition Conservative Party, knows how to read the national mood. He is not going to pick up the pro-American baton.

Some commentators, reacting to Brown’s emphasis on British national identity, predict that the country may be entering a prickly phase — the Frenchification of British foreign policy, you might call it. But my hunch is that the Anglo-American affair will resume relatively soon: most likely, the day after George W. Bush leaves office. Despite all those opinion polls that show anti-Americanism running at alarming levels, the pull of pro-Americanism is strong and growing stronger in Britain.

This hunch is based on personal experience. I grew up in the Britain of the 1970s and 1980s, a land in which class resentments were intense, success was regarded as suspect and pessimism was the unofficial national religion. The only relief from the sensation of national decline came from a perfunctory military victory over a third-rate Argentine dictatorship. The Britain of that time was profoundly un-American.

But that changed during the 1990s. Unemployment came down, the economy bloomed and Britain started to outpace some of its European rivals. Optimism ceased to be a heretical credo; a go-getting meritocracy hatched from the cracked husk of the class system. London became a city of American investment bankers and Indian entrepreneurs. The national soccer team was coached by a Swede, and the most celebrated soccer club was owned by a Russian.

If you could date the crystallization of this new Britain, it was the moment when Tony Blair was elected in 1997. “New Labour, New Britain,” his campaign slogan went, and he showed what he meant by promoting women and racial minorities in his cabinet, chasing hereditary lords out of their privileged position in the upper house of Parliament, and generally by championing energy and ideas rather than caution and tradition. It was only natural that this exuberance was accompanied by a love affair with the United States. Whether he was embracing the Third Way ambition to remake social policy or the neoconservative ambition to remake entire countries, Blair could not resist the sense of possibility that American optimism brings — the sheer idealism of it.

In electing Blair nine years ago, Britons showed they identified with this American sensibility. Two more Blair victories later, this is even truer. Continued economic growth has pushed the old class system further off to the margins; melting-pot meritocracy has been strengthened. All of which sets Britain apart from the congenitally pessimistic and anti-American nations of stagnant Europe. The next blooming of the Anglo-American affair will not be long in coming.