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Britain's special relationship fantasy has been revealed

When US President Joe Biden decided earlier this year to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan, he did so without consulting British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. And when the mass evacuations from Kabul began in August, Johnson's desperate calls to the White House were ignored for 36 hours. All of this happened despite the fact that Britain sent more troops to Afghanistan and Iraq than any other US ally. In purely military terms, the British contribution may not have been very much, but since September 11, Britain had consistently given the United States political cover in the “war on terror”.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan made the pathetic position of Great Britain in the so-called "special relationship" with Washington humiliatingly visible. The US has been accused by some critics of ceasing to be a serious power after its recent overseas debacle. But Britain is even worse off because its claim to high international status rests heavily on the special relationships it has had since World War II.

The minor importance of Great Britain in Washington should already have been recognizable. In 2003 Tony Blair pledged his country to stand "shoulder to shoulder with our American friends" in the Iraq war; But when George W. Bush began invading Iraq, Blair first found out about it by watching the television news. Blair was also ignored by the White House. Now he complains that Islamism, as it now rules in Afghanistan, remains "a first-order security threat" to the West and that nation building is as important as ever.

When US President Joe Biden decided earlier this year to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan, he did so without consulting British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. And when the mass evacuations from Kabul began in August, Johnson's desperate calls to the White House were ignored for 36 hours. All of this happened despite the fact that Britain sent more troops to Afghanistan and Iraq than any other US ally. In purely military terms, the British contribution may not have been very much, but since September 11, Britain had consistently given the United States political cover in the “war on terror”.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan made the pathetic position of Great Britain in the so-called "special relationship" with Washington humiliatingly visible. The US has been accused by some critics of ceasing to be a serious power after its recent overseas debacle. But Britain is even worse off because its claim to high international status rests heavily on the special relationships it has had since World War II.

The minor importance of Great Britain in Washington should already have been recognizable. In 2003 Tony Blair pledged his country to stand "shoulder to shoulder with our American friends" in the Iraq war; But when George W. Bush began invading Iraq, Blair first found out about it by watching the television news. Blair was also ignored by the White House. Now he complains that Islamism, as it now rules in Afghanistan, remains "a first-order security threat" to the West and that nation building is as important as ever.

Blair's lofty rhetoric, heard 20 years ago after the 9/11 attacks, about spreading freedom and democracy and not resting "until (Islamist) evil is driven out of our world" – which means Britain, of course, is together with its close partner, the United States, would do – has a long history. The concept of Anglo-American exceptionalism, which results from a shared love of freedom, goes back at least to the 19th century. William E. Forster, a British politician in the liberal government of William Gladstone, gave his name to so-called "forsterism," the belief that Anglo-American Protestants were called by God to spread democracy among the sober peoples of the world. Historically connected with this is the mission to intervene in other nations in the name of freedom, possibly with military force. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a secular version of forsterism.

Winston Churchill often spoke of "Anglo-Saxon freedoms" at the beginning of World War II. His aim was to convince the United States to save Britain. Because of this, he popularized the idea of ​​a special relationship. Unfortunately, the British, from Churchill to Margaret Thatcher to Blair to Johnson, could not let go.

That Churchill found it so difficult to get the US to intervene against Hitler shows that US foreign policy has not always been interventionist. Manifest Destiny was used to justify wars in Mexico and against Native Americans, and Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg promise that American freedom would not perish from this earth was cited by some commentators to justify the invasion of Iraq. But there were also times of retreat when one did not want to take part in the struggles of distant peoples.

Biden's decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan could be seen in this light. It follows a path started by Barack Obama and continued in a cruder form by Donald Trump. Biden has long been skeptical of US military intervention. As Obama's vice president, he spoke out against the use of military force in Syria and Libya. But it is certainly premature to assume that his tenure will be remembered as one of America's isolationist times. Biden may simply turn his attention to another part of the world. At least rhetorically, the American freedom struggle is now focused on China.

However, there is a historical reason why versions of forsterism persisted in both US and UK politics. It's the same reason Britain held onto the special relationship for so long: beating Germany and Japan. Yes, the Soviet Union may have had the toughest fighting, but the end of World War II and the successful return of democracy in Germany and Japan confirmed the Anglo-American notion that the United States and Britain are unique bastions and promoters of freedom. Some people forgot that both Germany and Japan had pre-war democratic institutions to build on, and even assumed that democratic nation-building would be just as easy to do in Baghdad or Kabul.

That the United States would assume the role of leader of the "free world" after World War II was inevitable and was universally welcomed, at least in Europe and East Asia. The Cold War on Communism led the United States into foolish wars, but countries under the US nuclear umbrella could focus on building their economies without worrying too much about security. For many people in Germany, Japan, France and other rich countries, the quality of life is now higher than for most Americans.

The same may be true of parts of the UK. But the British may have been the Pax Americana biggest losers. By clinging to a relationship with the United States that was considered far more special in London than in Washington, Britain missed its chance to assume a leading role in Europe and to shape its institutions. Even Churchill, who was one of the first advocates of a united Europe (in a 1946 speech in Zurich), could not see Britain as a member.

After all, Great Britain had won the war and declined offer after offer from other European countries to help set up common European institutions. Until it was too late. When Harold Macmillan finally realized with his words that Great Britain was no longer a great power, but could still be a great country in Europe, General Charles de Gaulle rejected the British application for membership in the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1963. De Gaulle reminded Macmillan of Churchill's words to him in 1944: If Britain had to choose between Europe and the open sea, it would choose the latter.

Then-British Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused to send troops to aid Lyndon B. Johnson's war in Vietnam, but this was an exception. Time and again, when Britain had to decide whether to follow America's example or to go along with European objections, Britain did the former. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was just the latest example. The irony is that the United States has consistently preferred UK membership in European institutions. Great Britain was most useful to the United States as a full member of a European community; it would be the most reliable defender of US interests in Europe (one reason why de Gaulle blocked British membership).

But even after Great Britain became a full member of the EEC and the European Union, the British Prime Ministers felt closer to Washington than Brussels. The conservative press in London portrayed Europe as a kind of colonial oppressor to be resisted. A combination of war nostalgia, English chauvinism, genuine skepticism towards European federalism, opportunist populism and sheer bloodlust then convinced half of the British voters in a referendum to pull Great Britain out of Europe again.

Johnson promised a new era of "global Britain". The special relationship with the United States would be restored in all its glory. Separated from Brussels, Anglo-Saxon freedom would reign.

Then the US president refused to take his call.

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