Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Americans love British politicians. To the distinguished company of Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, we can now add Tony Blair as one of most admired people on this side of the Atlantic. Mr. Blair’s favorable ratings here in the United States hover at about 70 percent. Granted this is a little behind Queen Elizabeth II, who after her state visit on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, had an approval rating of 80 percent. But, still, 70 percent is a lot of popularity.

As Mr. Blair arrives here in Washington tonight to spend the next few days with his friend President Bush, the special relationship between Britain and the United States is a subject that needs attention. It is very much in the national interest of both countries to nurture the relationship that dates as far back as this country has existed.

Britain remains the most important political and military ally of the United States. However, while Mr. Blair is extremely popular in the United States because he has to steadfastly stood with the United States since September 11, his approval rating has plummeted in Britain, in some ways for much the same reason. (This is not to say that domestic politics have not taken their toll as well.) Americans have deeply appreciated the solidarity and firmness Mr. Blair has shown (and the fact that the British are now drawing down their troops in Iraq after five years does not change that fact). Meanwhile, the British public has been deeply divided over the British engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and indeed over the Blair government’s approach to the war on terrorism — this, despite the fact that Britain by association with the United States remains a world power that punches far above its weight. The emblem of Britain is traditionally the bulldog, but under Mr. Blair, the bulldog has just about been replaced by the poodle as the most-used metaphor, a French dog at that.

This ambivalence is also suggested by the fact that the alliance sustained by Churchill, Thatcher and Blair with the United States in each case has come at the personal expense of domestic popularity. You could in fact argue that Mr. Blair made a great personal sacrifice as he ensured that the United States did not stand without major European allies as it face the most difficult external threat of this country’s existence. As Mr. Blair stated in his resignation address, “I decided we should stand shoulder to shoulder with our oldest ally.” And so he did.

All of which suggests that the warmth and the style of relationship we have been between Messrs. Bush and Blair is unlikely to be repeated by the next British prime minister. Whoever will lead Britain in the future — be that Mr. Blair’s chosen successor, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, or after the next election, Tory leader David Cameron — the rhetoric of the next prime minister will inevitably be calibrated to fit the national mood of his countrymen, and will likely be designed to stress independence from U.S. policy, and possibly greater closeness to Europe.

On this side of the Atlantic, it will be crucial to look beyond the rhetoric, which some will find troubling to the substance of this long, historical alliance. In spite of 1776, Brits and Americans share affinities that go well beyond the politics of the moment, by culture, values, as well as a political system, with its emphasis on individual rights. The free-market model of the United States and Britain is the world’s greatest engine of economic growth, and the two have more invested in each other’s economies than anywhere else. And they share a common language that has spread throughout the world.

The “special relationship” has been critical at world historical moments — World War II, the last decade of the Cold War and now the long war against terrorism. Ultimately, it has been vindicated each time. This time, the verdict of history is likely to be favorable as well, even if the going is tough today.

For all these reasons, it will be important to keep the big historical picture in mind as personalities and styles change. In order to be a world leader, the United States will continue to need allies. In the time to come, though, the “special relationship” — as well as other relationships — may need a greater degree of attention and diplomatic adroitness.

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