There’s a good chance Liz Truss’s Ukraine, China policy will be worse
The parting advice of British prime minister Boris Johnson to Liz Truss, who is poised to become his successor on Sept. 5, began, “Number One: stay close to the Americans.” Rarely can any piece of advice be more unnecessary — for Truss has no intention of doing anything else. Nor, indeed, does the greater part of the British establishment, from both main parties.
Johnson and Truss are of course Conservatives, but British participation in the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq was ordered by a Labor prime minister, Tony Blair — recently knighted at the request of the present Labor leader, Keir Starmer, a strong “Blairite.” British support for the U.S. plan to expand NATO to Georgia and Ukraine was likewise initiated by the government of another Labor prime minister, Gordon Brown.
The roots of British attachment to the United States are very deep and spread very wide; and this attachment has only grown stronger in recent years, even as U.S. indifference to British interests and views has grown. As a famous song about an American-British romance has it:
“So if I go for scallops and you go for lobsters,
So all right no contest we’ll order lobster
For we know we need each other so we
Better call the calling off, off…”
— George Gershwin, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”
In the present special relationship, it is most definitely Britain that agrees to order the lobster, whether it likes it or not.
Common language formed much of the original basis for the close relationship, as expressed most vividly in the English Speaking Union founded by Winston Churchill, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, and others as part of an effort to lay the cultural foundation for American support of the British Empire. The importance of this factor has diminished somewhat since the elites of much of the world now speak English. By the same token, however, a British upper class that used to speak good French (and Latin) is now virtually monoglot.
Of much greater importance was the Second World War, when America saved Britain from defeat, and tens of thousands of American servicemen died while based in Britain. This military relationship then became permanently institutionalized as a result of the Cold War and British membership of NATO. All the same, Harold Wilson refused (like other NATO members) to send troops to Vietnam despite fervent appeals by the Johnson administration, and Margaret Thatcher did not dream of asking U.S. permission before sending a British expeditionary force to reconquer the Falklands.
British critics of the relationship today sometimes say that Britain is in America’s pocket (or some less mentionable position), but the truth is rather that Britain rides around on America’s shoulders. In other words, the British establishment has a deeply ingrained belief, derived from the British Empire, that Britain must play the role of a great power on the world stage; and for many years now, this role has been entirely dependent on support from the United States. Even when Britain plays a limited part in a U.S.-led operation — in Basra, Helmand, or the Libyan intervention — American forces end up having to bail Britain out.
The British obsession with great power status (which received a tremendous boost from victory in the Falklands) has led to a role for the armed forces in the British imagination and public life far greater than in any other West European country, with the possible exception of France. Meanwhile, the armed forces, even when they sneer at Americans behind their backs, are utterly devoted to the American alliance.
In two areas in particular, U.S. support is crucial. The British nuclear deterrent (unlike the French) is overwhelmingly dependent on U.S. technology. British intelligence benefits from (but also contributes to) America’s “Five Eyes” program, described as “the intelligence alliance of the Anglosphere,” from which all non-English speaking NATO members are excluded. Among more concrete benefits, this allows British officials to show off their superior knowledge in front of their less privileged European allies.
A large part of the British media is now controlled from America, through the Murdoch empire; and Murdoch has shown his power to break British politicians who seriously threaten his power or the American alliance. The Israel lobby in Britain is likewise categorically dedicated to this alliance. The City of London and Wall Street are organically linked, with time spent working in New York an important stage in the “cursus honorum” of British bankers. Leading British think tanks are also now organically joined to America. One even has an American name — the Henry Jackson Society — and is explicitly dedicated to a U.S.-derived neo-conservative agenda.
The specifically Conservative dependence on America has received a tremendous boost in recent years from Brexit. Geopolitically, the breach with the European Union has seemingly left Britain with nowhere else to go but Washington. Equally important, the Conservative government — and Truss as its Foreign Minister —have engaged in a frantic effort to justify their claim that Brexit has freed Britain to be “great” and “independent” again — something that can only achieve even the thinnest semblance of reality with U.S. support.
Aspects of this have been simply fatuous — like the claim that the Commonwealth can become a serious actor in the world and vehicle for British influence and trade. Others are much more serious: notably Truss’s move towards following the United States in challenging China, expressed in her call for a “Global NATO.” Hence another part of Johnson’s advice: “stick up for freedom and democracy everywhere,” which ties Britain to the Biden administration’s presentation of a “free world” opposed to an “alliance of autocracies” (or in Truss’s formulation, a “network of liberty”). Britain’s particularly close links to the autocracies of the Persian Gulf render this suggestion particularly hollow in the British case.
Finally, there is Johnson’s advice to “stick up for the Ukrainians” — something that he also hardly needed to say, since Truss has been a fervent exponent of this. Particular support for Ukraine and opposition to Russia (short of going to war) has been generated by sympathy for Ukraine’s plight and outrage at Russia’s behavior. However, it also appeals greatly to the British armed forces and their desire for larger budgets, and the British media, which tends to be extremely deferential to military statements — however divorced from reality.
Strong support for Ukraine also allows Conservative governments to strike Churchillian poses of superiority to supposedly “cowardly” Europeans who wish to “appease” Russia. In this regard however, Truss has sometimes gone too far even for the Biden administration. The Financial Times quotes a senior U.S. official as saying that her approach is “very black and white,” and that her rhetoric has frequently outstripped U.S. policy and real British commitments.
Moreover, the British establishment as a whole dreads the possibility of a victory for Donald Trump or someone close to him in 2024. They fear that the “America First” ideology threatens the Transatlantic Alliance. The cultural politics and overall style of the American Right are also very different indeed from those of most Conservative voters in Britain, let alone the British population in general.
Trump barely even pretended to take the “Special Relationship” seriously (though his hostility to the European Union does create a bond with Conservative Brexiteers). He is also unlikely to have forgotten the fact that the “dossier” accusing him of working for Putin was drawn up by a former (at least, officially) British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele. Come 2025, Liz Truss — if she is still Prime Minister — may wish that she had ordered scallops after all.