Anglosphere: A poodle with teeth

By JAMES C. BENNETT   |   Feb. 2, 2003 at 5:33 PM

WASHINGTON, Feb. 2 (UPI) -- Anti-Americans in Britain and Continental Europe alike have baited British Prime Minister Tony Blair with the label of "Bush's poodle" ever since he aligned his government with the United States in favor of military action against Iraq if needed.

This alignment has been all the more significant in that Blair has sent significant forces to the region, making Britain the principal other power that has committed more than either highly specialized or token amounts of troops. If Blair is a poodle, he is a poodle with teeth.

The sobriquet of "poodle" is highly misleading both as to the motivations for and effects of Blair's actions. "Poodle" implies both a canine servility and frivolous irrelevance. Neither are the case with Blair, or Britain for that matter. Rather, Blair's actions proceed from an inner conviction, which ironically is the same fount of other Blair stances for which the same people who now poodle-ize him once lionized him.

That Blair takes the same stance as an American president is neither opportunism nor coincidence, but rather an expression of the underlying shared Anglosphere values. What makes Blair difficult to understand is that he is more of a Gladstonian than the sort of Laborite we have been familiar with over the past century.

The Gladstonian tradition in Britain is a political expression of a wider moral tradition that has been one of the distinct temperaments of the Anglosphere for centuries. As such, it has a political cousin in America, the Wilsonian tradition. It is characterized by the moralization of political issues, the assignment of a didactic and improving role to government, the enshrinement of reason and law as a process for resolving both domestic and international disputes, and a crusading side that refrains from force.

Refrains, that is, until the offending party has demonstrated a moral depravity that identifies him as an obstacle to progress, in which case, Wilsonian/Gladstonians are then willing to commit overwhelming force in chastisement and correction.

"Woodrow Wilson's Guns," as Warren Zevon called them, bombarded Veracruz in 1914 to (as Wilson put it) "teach the Latin Americans to elect good men." Blair and former President Bill Clinton sent the modern equivalent over Belgrade to teach the Serbians the same lessons. If Blair is willing to send forces along with Bush to Baghdad, his motivations will not be those of the cowboy but of the missionary.

The true peculiarity of the Bush-Blair relationship lies in the fact that the two share one important characteristic, albeit understood in different ways, while differing in another extremely important way. This creates a tension between cooperation and conflict that has characterized, and will probably continue to characterize, this peculiar instance of the Special relationship.

The shared characteristic is that Bush and Blair, almost alone of the world's leaders, genuinely believe that they are facing not merely opposition, but evil. The unshared characteristic is that for Blair, one of the principal aspects of Saddam Hussein's evil is his defiance of international law. Blair is not only a Gladstonian internationalist, but a robust internationalist, who believes that international order must be backed with effective action.

When words fail, Gladstonians, like Wilsonians, are willing to bring out the guns. In the Web logs, there is much talk about the rousing of the Jacksonian spirit in America. A careful reading of history would warn foreigners that the truly dangerous situation comes when the Wilsonians are aroused as well.

One of the many ironies in this situation is that here Blair is being a more consistent backer of the international order and the United Nations than his critics on the left, and on the European Continent. It is exactly the same motivation that leads Blair to criticize America for failing to ratify Kyoto that causes him to support Bush on Iraq.

Even more ironic is that the same motivations that lead Blair to cross swords with Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder over Iraq are the same that lead him to be such an ardent Europeanist. Blair's modern-day Gladstonian vision of moral purpose in international affairs leads him to equally pursue the global legitimacy of the United Nations and the regional legitimacy of the EU.

This seemingly strange but actually quite understandable alliance is bringing an awareness of a change that has been in progress for the past decade: Britain's return to a substantial status as an international actor.

A combination of the end of Soviet superpower, Britain's effective embrace of high-technology warfare well ahead of the Continental Europeans, and its continuing wider profile of connections and presence around the world have given Britain a position at the top of the middle rank of powers, in a world where the top rank has only one member.

Although the characterization of Blair as Bush's poodle is absurd, the widespread credibility of the accusation does reflect an anomaly in the current status of U.S.-U.K. relationships. The Anglo-American alliance is primarily articulated through NATO and related organizations. These evolved during the Cold War era, in which British forces were perceived as continually diminishing, and peripheral to the tasks of repelling a Soviet land assault in Central Europe, while Germany was perceived as critical in such. In today's environment, the situation of Britain and Germany has effectively reversed itself.

I do not believe that NATO's usefulness is finished. In fact, the entry of the Eastern European members has given the organization new life and purpose. However, it is also worth pressing ahead simultaneously with a more concise alliance structure built around the Anglo-American relationship, and including non-NATO allies of worth such as Australia. Some existing structures, such as the USUKA intelligence-sharing scheme, might be folded in to such. This structure would permit effective action, and also formalize the U.S.-U.K. consultation that has been the primary international process of value since Sept. 11, 2001. Britain's special role deserves a formal distinction among America's circle of allies.

Rather than a poodle, Blair has been a very effective arbiter of British influence in Washington, to the benefit of both nations. Now is the time to think through how this effective beginning can serve as the springboard to further moves of mutual advantage.

(The views articulated in James Bennett's weekly Anglosphere column for United Press International are his own and are not necessarily shared by UPI.)

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