The Great Anglo-American Spat

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Various irate British observers — from columnists like Peter Hitchens and Geoffrey Wheatcroft to parliamentarians and former cabinet officials — have recently declared the “special relationship” with America to be over. The Anglo animus, perhaps brought to a boil by the World Cup soccer match and by President Obama’s handling of the BP spill, has now reached comical levels. Everything from the War of 1812 to American neutrality in 1939 is evoked to prove that the present estrangement is more typical than aberrant in our post-1776 relations.

To be fair, the miffed British are reacting to two years of both perceived and real slights from the Obama administration. Who does not know the familiar litany? There was the rude return of the magnificent Churchill bust. The asymmetrical gift exchange with Gordon Brown — at the end of a visit in which the president repeatedly snubbed the prime minister — and the banal choice of gift for the queen the following month revealed a certain symbolic spite on the administration’s part.

The State Department’s suggestion that there was nothing particularly special about American-British relations did not help, especially given the feeling that America does not fully appreciate the singular British military contribution in Afghanistan — to be seen in the light of the meager European commitment.

Then there was Secretary Clinton’s unnecessary preemptory announcement of American neutrality in the next round of disputes over the Falklands. All this is topped off by the constant presidential trashing of “British Petroleum” and its mess in the Gulf, with the implication that a foreign interest perhaps does not care too much for a former colony’s ecology.

In reaction, polls reveal that a vast majority of British citizens believe that their relationship with America has worsened since 2009. Of course, we now show the same indifference to almost all our allies, such as the Colombians, Poles, and Israelis. Yet two ancillary considerations perhaps explain why the British are especially upset at these real and hyped slights.

One is embarrassment, and the second a sort of fear.

First, in 2008 the British public heavily invested in candidate Obama as a long-awaited social-democratic anti-Bush. Four years earlier, in 2004, the British media had closely followed the American presidential election, with some commentators haughtily berating the voters of Ohio for giving Bush the margin of victory — as if one swing state that went conservative was responsible for ensuring a continuance of global discord. In this regard, the boorish and untrue slur against George Bush’s supposed lack of interest in reading, offered earlier this month by the new court jester, Paul McCartney, as a sort of toady tip to a smiling Obama, is par for the course rather than a clumsy divot.

In 2008, the British public and press both bought, hook, line, and sinker, the reset-button promises of Barack Obama to be a listener. They welcomed a sort of elegant post-racial Wilsonian multilateralist — and, better yet, a progressive who did not drawl or offend like the pink, tongue-tied bore of old, Jimmy Carter. And so the damn-Bush/praise-Obama chorus sang on in Britain.

That the supposed yokel “Yo, Blair!” George W. Bush was strongly pro-British and that he cared deeply about his partnership with Tony Blair (who often had more influence on Bush than vice versa) were conveniently ignored. Indeed, the British were embarrassed by Bush’s fondness for Blair and for the U.K. in general, as if he were some sort of Walmart Velcro that just wouldn’t come unstuck.

Now, of course, the British have got what they wanted, and they are beginning to rue it. They fear that they have been had. And in a way, they most certainly have.

All of which brings us to our second consideration, the suspicion among some Brits that the Obama hostility is not so much the clumsiness of a raw rookie as it is the logical expression of our first “Pacific president,” who feels no special affinity with Europe or reverence for the Western tradition — and thus especially no love for our colonial mother, Britain.

Indeed, we are getting yet another round of references in the British press to the passages in Dreams from My Father concerning the supposed maltreatment of Barack Obama’s Kenyan grandfather for his anti-colonialist activities. When they are not doubting the truth of Obama’s charges, British pundits express the fear that, in Aeschylean fashion, the sins of a pith-helmeted proconsul have earned them payback from a third-generation nemesis.

For some reason, the British — perhaps naïvely — believed that there was a universal brotherhood of progressives that transcended archaic national boundaries and so would trump any lingering animosity that Barack Obama picked up first from his family, and then during his odyssey from prep school in Hawaii, to Indonesia, to Occidental, Columbia, and Harvard Law, and to Chicago organizing, all of it amplified by close friendship with Bill Ayers and Rashid Khalidi, and, of course, dutiful attendance at Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church.

What these curiously assorted places and people have in common is disdain for the Western tradition and, again, an unspoken dislike of Britain in particular. In such a network, one might hear of the Raj, of Mossadegh, of the Mau Mau revolt, but nothing of Magna Carta, the Scottish Enlightenment, the effort to stop Bonaparte, the terrible costs of defending liberal values against Prussian nationalism, Nazism, fascism, Japanese militarism, and Stalinism, or the largely peaceful withdrawal from empire — or the unmatched insight of Milton, Shakespeare, Gibbon, and Dickens, or the genius of Hobbes, Hume, Locke, and Burke.

In contrast, in the formative years of Barack Obama — and millions of others on the progressive Left — evocation of the evils of imperialism, colonialism, oppression, and exploitation were simply daily rituals. Names like Trafalgar, the Corn Laws, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, the Somme, the Battle of Britain, and El Alamein are, well, names of no particular significance. A president who thinks Americans liberated Auschwitz would hardly care to inquire about the RAF’s “finest hour,” or the contribution of a man like Field Marshall Alan Brooke to the winning of World War II.

In short, given the nature of American therapeutic education, the triumph of multiculturalism, and our own radically changing demography, if Barack Obama did not exist, one would have to invent him. What is strange, then, is not Obama’s innate distrust of Britain, but the current surprise in Britain that someone like him is indifferent to what Britain stands for, past and present.

But note, when I said an Obama would have to be invented, I did not mean to imply that Obamaism is yet the norm — only that it is a strong current in American popular culture that at some point, if only for limited duration, was bound to find resonance at the highest level of government.

Obamaism is, however, not quite yet typical of American thinking.

Most Americans, across racial and cultural lines, still revere our British connection. It is what helps to explain why we are more like successful Canada than failing Mexico, why we look back at our own sacrifices at the side of Britain in two world wars with pride rather than regret, and why, for all the petty squabbling and rivalries, we usually think we are doing something wrong when Britain is not our partner.

What explains the way American Revolution unfolded and the success that followed is not just the courage and brilliance of our Founding Fathers but also the fact that we were revolting against Britain and not an Ottoman Empire, Russia, or China. Americans usually understand that, and so we blend our pride in American exceptionalism with acknowledgment that its font was British law, government, and culture.

Even as America becomes an increasingly diverse society, even as our schools turn away from traditional learning, nevertheless millions of Americans still grasp why we owe so much to Britain — and why we must never endanger our singular friendship with it, the cornerstone of American foreign policy. Our president’s cavalier indifference to Britain reflects a strain in American life, but not American life per se. We may too often take Britain for granted, but we do so because our unspoken debt to it and our appreciation for it are part of our national fiber. Barack Obama cannot change that — as we will relearn either when he shows contrition, or at such time as he leaves office.

©2010 Victor Davis Hanson

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