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Yazar Jul 23rd 2010, 11:15 by Bagehot   

Bagehot's notebook

The "special relationship"

Britain: America's Trojan poodle in Europe?
Jul 23rd 2010, 11:15 by Bagehot
THIS week, with David Cameron having a bit of a torrid time of it in Washington, seemed a good moment to look at the much-touted "special relationship". My print column (my first as Bagehot) tries to tackle, head-on, the charge that Britain's proximity to America gives us delusions of grandeur.

This charge is especially common in Brussels and other western European capitals. I have been told by all sorts of bigwigs that Britain's foot-dragging over a common EU foreign policy, or EU military co-operation, is based on arrogance, fed by the idea that we are best friends with the American superpower. Another, related charge is that we suffer grandiose delusions about our empire. I refer in the column, obliquely, to a senior politician who told me "your country has never got over the British Empire". The jibe came over a dinner a while back in Strasbourg, and was made by a former head of government who is now a big wheel in EU politics. The line stayed with me, because I was so sure it was wrong.

I think Britain is jolly arrogant in some ways. But I disagree that we think the special relationship makes us too special to pool our forces with Europe. I also disagree that imperial nostalgia is a big force in public opinion.

I think proximity to American hyperpower makes us realistic, not arrogant. As I write in the column, EU politicians keep waiting for some humiliation to happen that wakes us up to our true status as America's Trojan poodles in Europe: slavish in Washington (eg, over Iraq) and cocky in Brussels, and happy to help the Americans divide the EU and rule.
Looking at the rather bumpy ride Mr Cameron had in America, with awkward questions about BP and incredulity from interviewers about the depth of Britain's public spending crisis, I wrote this week:

At last, European allies could be forgiven for thinking, Britain’s Atlanticist obsession is unravelling. Freed from delusions of grandeur, perhaps it will finally stop blocking attempts to pursue a much more ambitious European foreign and security policy.

It is a seductive theory. Alas, it is based on a misunderstanding of the special relationship, which British officials know is not that special at all. For the ministers, military types, envoys and spooks who make the relationship work, proximity to the world superpower has made them painfully realistic more than it has made them arrogant. They know all too well they serve a mid-sized, declining power that only intermittently sways American policy.
What is more, Britain’s upper echelons are not theologically opposed to working with Europe, nor hostile to European values. In the words of one senior figure, a posting in America is the best way to teach the British how “fundamentally European” they are. If the British machine is sceptical about Euro-dreams of bestriding a multipolar world, that is because it has a jump-seat view of American might—and of the money and unity of purpose required to make it work.

Some readers may raise an eyebrow at the idea that a posting in America is enough to teach the British how "fundamentally European" they are. Having been posted to both Brussels and Washington in my time, I think I know what my source meant.

On the one hand, Britain is a free market outlier in Europe, displaying an Anglo-Saxon preference for individual freedom over enforced equality, a lot of the time. And yes, Britain and America are bound by deep ties of language, history and culture. But if you look at a whole range of markers, the British start to look rather (western) European: think of public spending as a share of national wealth, tax rates, welfare provisions, healthcare, rates of religious observance, the proportion of politicians who are secularist or openly atheist, views of gay marriage, capital punishment, gun laws... the list is long.

When it comes to nostalgia for the empire, I think that is a generational issue. Put simply, I think that Britons under 40 are almost wholly clueless about the British empire. In my column, I note:
A recent YouGov poll for Chatham House, a think-tank, did find that Britons prefer New Zealand, Canada and Australia to other foreign countries, by a hefty margin. But some ex-colonies, such as India and Pakistan, were unpopular. To be blunt, most Britons under 40 have only the haziest knowledge of the empire: history is not their strongest suit. The YouGov poll seemed mostly to reflect dislike of the exotic: the next highest-scoring foreign countries were tidy, calm Switzerland, Sweden and the Netherlands. Thanks to a shared language, it is easy for Britons to take credit for America’s successes (for instance, Hollywood films that feature one or two British stars), while decrying American excesses. But that amounts to the sin of smugness, not dreams of playing Athens to America’s Rome.

My very first foreign assignment was to Australia, to cover a constitutional convention held in 1998 to debate the monarchy. I worked for a staunchly monarchist newspaper at the time, who sent me to cover the whole thing, end to end. As the only foreign correspondent there, as the convention dragged into days 10, 11 and so on, I ended up becoming a useful filler story for Australian broadcasters, who had run out of interesting things to say. Thus, for a few short days, I was dragged in front of every television camera and microphone in Canberra, as a presenter intoned: "The eyes of the world are on Australia. Here to tell us what Britain thinks..." And each time, I would be asked to confirm that the British public were on tenterhooks, and would be devastated if the queen were no longer Queen of Australia. Each time, I would reply with what I was sure was the truth: that the British public had little or no idea the convention was going on, and that many younger Britons would be a bit startled to hear their monarch even was Queen of Australia. This did not always go down well.

Now, 12 years on, I see no reason to suppose British knowledge of the empire is any better. I suspect if you stopped passers-by in a shopping centre, handed them a list of countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Suriname, Congo, Uganda, Malta, Lebanon and so on, and asked them to say which ones were part of the British empire, their answers would be little better than a random stab in the dark. History is not a high priority in British education: it is not compulsory after 14. This is the country, after all, where one in three younger Britons had no idea that William the Conqueror won the battle of Hastings.

That same YouGov poll, by the way, found that the British public were strikingly hostile to the EU, but that on a whole range of issues from illegal immigration to trade or relations with India and China, more wanted to work closely with the EU than with America.

A last thought. I think it is unusually hard to judge how much the British public like or dislike America, because a shared language makes American culture so much less visible in Britain. To expand on the cinematic example given above, if a cinema in Rome or Paris or Barcelona is showing nothing but Hollywood films, that may well feel to some locals like a foreign cultural invasion. If the same films are showing at a British multiplex, it is much less of a challenge to British amour-propre. I think this goes for consumer products too. I could not find polling data on this, but I have a hunch that if you asked random British consumers the nationality of Heinz baked beans, Kellogg's Cornflakes or Mars bars, a surprising number would reply that they were British, not American.


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