On the way to work at the Library of Congress during the year just past, I was stopped on more than one occasion by activists from the Lyndon LaRouche movement. Among the many interesting theories they regaled me with one sunny Spring morning, one stuck out: Queen Elizabeth II, through dastardly means, exerted a secret and nefarious influence on American foreign policy, manipulating it to serve British imperial interests. This, they said, explained America’s recent wars in the Middle East. Informing these activists that I was British and therefore delighted to hear this news, I added that to have such influence over the world’s most powerful state must be a testament to the hidden genius of British foreign policy. After all, I reminded them, it was only 200 years ago—August 24, 1814, to be precise—that British troops had burned this town down, marking the only time that a foreign power had captured and occupied the U.S. capital. I then continued merrily on my way.
The reality is, of course, more disheartening. The United Kingdom’s stock in Washington, DC, is diminishing. Foot-dragging and defense-cutting Britain is not the ally to America it once was. It is not even the ally it was earlier in this young century when it stood staunchly beside the United States after September 11, 2001, and in the two wars that followed. The United Kingdom is now handwringing about its role in the world in a way not witnessed for many decades. Caught in a peculiar posture of fealty to feckless UN resolutions and deferring dangerously to ponderous parliamentary prerogatives, Britain risks corroding its “special relationship” with the United States—something that, in various incarnations (and under different appellations), has been a pillar of British foreign policy for the past century.
John Bew is a reader at the King’s College London War Studies Department. He is a contributing editor at War on the Rocks.