Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Seven remarks on alliances and influence

Andrew Rawnsley is right that Anglo-American relations have been harmed less by the ‘friendly fire’ killing of Lance Corporal Matty Hull than by the politicking that followed:

“The Pentagon obstructed the inquest into the death of Lance Corporal Matty Hull. His widow has had to wait four years until someone leaked the cockpit recording to find out how her husband was killed. The Ministry of Defence appeared unwilling to stand up to its American counterparts and dissembled about whether video footage of the attack existed. Not for the first time, Britain is made to look like a subservient satellite taken wretchedly for granted by the country that is supposed to be its closest ally.

“Tony Blair has been fixated with Washington because his guiding belief is that Britain maximises its global influence by flying as wingman to America.”

A few points. First of all, having a powerful ally with a good opinion of you does indeed improve your influence – both with the superpower in question and with other countries who see that you have this close relationship.

Secondly, maintaining any bond in international relations will sometimes involve you taking a course of action that you wouldn’t otherwise have taken.

Thirdly – and this is an important caveat to what follows – I don’t know what behind-the-scenes influence Blair may have exerted over Bush.

But fourthly, it’s a sound general principle that if your support for your more powerful ally is so frequent as to become taken for granted, then your closeness may be less likely to result in influence over them.

And fifthly, whatever does go on behind the scenes, if your support for your ally appears to the rest of the world to be so frequent as to be pretty much automatic, then your significance to other countries (beyond the role of a messenger) will diminish: why negotiate with the monkey rather than the organ-grinder?

So, sixthly, just as you might sometimes want to acquiesce purely for the sake of maintaining goodwill, so may keeping the modest distance that allows effective leverage sometimes involve stressing a point of difference for the sake of avoiding an appearance of slavishness. Tactical distancing can be useful in the same way that tactical closeness can. (As there’ll always be at least small points of genuine dissent, this shouldn’t mean putting it on.)

Of course, there’s the risk of misjudging it and going too far with either tactic, but fortunately – and seventhly – the substantial overlap of both interests and values between the US and the UK ensures that disputes are unlikely to become so large as to sour the relationship. The risk of appearing too close is another matter.

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