Myth IV: America Couldn’t Care Less What the Rest of the World Thinks
Before I came to Britain, I had supposed it was the Tories who hated Tony Blair. I stand corrected: it’s the core of his own party that most detests him.
Over my eight days in Britain, I talked to three or four Old Labourites. They all wanted to know the same thing: “George Bush doesn’t pay the slightest attention to Blair, does he?”
I hate being the bearer of bad news, but there was no denying the facts: “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Blair’s opinion is hugely important in America—in fact, Blair’s voice was a decisive one in persuading Bush to take America’s case against Iraq to the United Nations. Bush’s UN speech has clearly swayed British public opinion. And when your closest ally tells you that he needs something, you give it to him.” This news disheartened them horribly, but we all have to bear the truth as best we can.
I can’t wholly blame anyone for succumbing to the myth that Americans care nothing for international law and the views of their allies. If you read the American press or listen to the debates of the Congress, you will certainly find plenty of expressions of the “go-it-alone” mentality that often vexes America’s friends abroad. On this count, America is the victim of its own moments of exasperation.
And many of the stories about American indifference to the rest of the world are concocted in America: at a conference in 1997, I heard Hillary Clinton tell a distinguished international group that two thirds of the Republican congressmen elected in 1994 had never held a passport before they were elected.
I was fascinated by this claim of Republican insularity and spent two days checking it—only to find that it was one of those urban legends that gets reprinted and reprinted, but has no original source. Now really curious, I placed a call to the offices of five randomly chosen Republican freshmen—and discovered that every single one of them had possessed a passport for years.
Let’s separate out three distinct issues.
1. Does America respect international law and treaties?
2. Does America consult and respect its allies?
3. Is Britain, in particular, America’s “poodle”?
On the question of international law, the American record is pretty much like that of most European countries: good but imperfect. America sometimes succumbs to trade protectionism, as it did on steel earlier this year, but, while President Bush’s action may have been short-sighted, it was legally permissible. And when America violates international trade laws—as all major economies sometimes do—a victim who appears in front of an American court will have at least as fair a hearing as he will from a European court.
What really irks many Europeans is not that America violates treaties it has ratified, but that it refuses to obey agreements that it has not ratified—such as Kyoto or the international conventions on land mines and the international criminal court.
But who is the real threat to the international rule of law: America, for acting on the ancient and universal sovereign right not to adopt a treaty that does not serve its interests? Or those European countries that claim that the agreement on the international criminal court binds America, whether America adopts the treaty or not?
International law is an idea with a powerful hold on the European mind; maybe too powerful, since Europeans often pronounce things “unlawful” when they merely mean that they disapprove of them.
So, too, with many of the things that America does. It may be irritating when Americans apply their laws on Cuban property or banking privacy extra-territorially. It’s irritating when the Europeans do the same, by refusing to extradite accused criminals to face the death penalty. In neither case is it a violation of some law: it is a diplomatic problem that friends must resolve together.
That brings us to the second grievance: America’s failure to consult and listen. And yes, Washington is often guilty of this.
But look at the matter from an American point of view: for 50 years, via NATO, America risked nuclear suicide to guarantee the nations of Europe against attack. Sure, America benefited from the arrangement–but it benefited less than Europe and paid much more.
Then, paradoxically, the first NATO nation to be attacked turns out to be America. America invokes Article V—and where are the allies? Britain is there, and God bless you for it. Australia, though not in NATO, is there as well, and bless Australia, too.
But the others? Where are you? Where are the Germans whom America defended at their hours of maximum danger—the Berlin crises of 1949 and 1961? The French, the Dutch and the Belgians?
Europe aspires to become a great power and world leader alongside America. Well, what are Europe’s obligations to listen to its friends in their hour of need? Or do the obligations run one way only?
Since 1945, we have lived through any number of “crises” in the trans-Atlantic relationship. Almost all of them take the same form: Washington does something that segments of the European population dislike; they protest; and European governments urge the American government to do something to mollify the protesters.
Usually, the European governments get their way. President Bush did, in the end, go to the UN; Bill Clinton did keep quiet as Europeans banned GM foods from the markets; Ronald Reagan did negotiate away his cruise and Pershing missiles.
This time is different. This time, for perhaps the very first time, it is American public opinion that is aroused against Europe.
A few weeks ago, a piece by an American internet essayist showed up in my in-basket. It is an arresting statement of a newly familiar thought: “It’s like we’re the guy who ended up being the designated driver for the planet. Sure, we’d love to sit back and drink ourselves into a stupor with the rest of the globe, but we’re responsible for getting as many people safely home as possible.
“Every so often, while we’re sitting around wishing we could kill a few beers like the rest of the planet, a sloppy drunk, drooling Europe comes over to where we’re sitting. Then, they take another swig of vodka straight out of the bottle and tell us not to worry about a thing because they’ll drive everyone home in their ‘international law’ van.
“But we know, if we drink up, that we’ll just get a call at 4am asking us to bring our tow truck and the ‘jaws of life’ to clean up the bloody mess on dead man’s curve. That’s the burden of being an American.”
And to a nearly equal extent, it’s the burden of being British. Of all the myths I heard in Britain, none saddened me more than the recurrent self-flagellation about how little Americans must care about what Britain thinks. To some extent, this is that familiar post-imperial syndrome that Tony Blair diagnosed when he complained in Blackpool: “At times, we in Britain lack self-belief.”
But it is also something newer and more disturbing: a flight from responsibility. When the British tell themselves that it does not matter to Americans what the British think, they come dangerously close to telling themselves that it does not matter what the British think. And the conclusion that follows from that pessimism is that the British might as well abandon themselves to the misanthropic sanctimoniousness that often prevails on the Continent.
In fact, Britain commands at least as much attention and respect in America as it has done at any time since 1945. Here is one very practical example. Americans are now debating the nature of the regime that should succeed Saddam Hussein’s. Some quarters—the State Department, the CIA, the military, the more traditional members of the foreign policy elite, and the European and Arab allies and coalition partners—would prefer to install another, more rational, Sunni strong-man in Saddam’s place. Others—Congress, the civilian leaders of the US Department of Defence, the more ideological members of the foreign policy elite—want to try to build representative institutions in Iraq as the first steps toward Arab democracy.
At times, Mr Blair has dropped hints that he favours the second point of view. At Blackpool, for instance, he noted that some say that the Iraqis do not have a tradition of political freedom. “No, they don’t, but I bet they’d like to,” said Mr Blair. A nice rejoinder. But if he were to deliver that thought in a non-party setting and at length, he would transform the debate in America.
Britain has earned the right to be listened to. Its voice counts. That’s why succumbing to myths about America is ultimately most damaging to the British. For when you fail to see the world as it is, you cannot usefully influence it.