A Sad Farewell To Tony Blair

President Bush, right, and outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair, take part in a joint press conference in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, Thursday, May 17, 2007.
AP Photo
This column was written by Nile Gardiner.

Tony Blair's departure from Downing Street potentially marks the end of an era in U.S.-British relations. His extraordinarily close partnership with President Bush since the 9/11 attacks defied all expectations and provided the engine for the global War on Terror. In the past six years, the alliance between the United States and Great Britain rose to its strongest point since the days of the Cold War bond between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

Today, more than 12,000 British troops fight alongside their American counterparts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and London and Washington are cooperating on dozens of counterterrorism operations across the globe. The enduring strength of the alliance is the envy of the free world, and the French president or German chancellor can only dream of the kind of direct access to the White House that is the preserve of the British prime minister.

The special relationship is, however, under threat, and stands in a precarious long-term position. There are major challenges on the horizon, including the stunning rise of anti-Americanism in Britain, growing attempts by the al Qaeda network to break the alliance, as well as the continuing loss of British sovereignty in the European Union. The relationship cannot be taken for granted, and protecting and defending it should be a top-level priority for the U.S. government.

There is growing public animosity in the U.K. toward the alliance, and widespread disillusionment with American global leadership, across all political parties, social classes, and age groups.

In a September 2006 Financial Times/Harris poll, a striking 33 percent of Britons surveyed described the United States as "the greatest threat to global stability."(Just 21 percent named Iran, and 10 percent, North Korea.) Nearly 70 percent of Britons questioned in an October 2006 Guardian/ICM survey stated that U.S. policy had made the world "less safe" since 2001, and 75 percent agreed that President Bush was "a great or moderate danger to peace", more than the 62 percent scored by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the 69 percent by Kim Jong Il.

In a June 2006 Daily Telegraph/ YouGov poll, 77 percent of those polled disagreed with the view that the United States was "a beacon of hope for the world," and 58 percent supported the description of America as "an imperial power." Sixty-seven percent of respondents expressed "little or very little confidence" in "the ability of the United States to deal wisely with present world problems," and 65 percent supported the view that U.S. policies made the world "a somewhat or much worse place to live in." A July 2006 Guardian/ICM poll found that 63 percent of Britons thought the UK was "too close to the USA," and just 9 percent of British respondents in a March 2007 YouGov poll agreed with the proposition that "Britain should continue to base its foreign policy on its close relationship with the United States."

If these poll findings are cemented over the next few years and become part of an irreversible trend, the ramifications for future British policy toward the United States will be immense. They reflect a commonly held, though hugely unfair view among the British public that Britain under Tony Blair has become America's "poodle," receiving nothing in return. Blair's unyielding support for President Bush perversely weakened the prospect of future British leaders standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States. His successor, Gordon Brown, will be heavily dependent upon the traditional socialist Left of the ruling Labor party for support, and will be under pressure not to emulate the close Bush-Blair partnership.

A frequent visitor to the United States, Brown's instincts are far from anti-American, but those of his party certainly are. He will undoubtedly seek to create some distance between Washington and London, and will prioritize 'soft' issues, such as international development, foreign aid, and global warming. The high-profile, flashy public press conferences that were a regular feature of the Washington political scene when Blair was prime minister, are likely to replaced by low key, but tougher behind the scenes negotiations, with Brown cutting a far less dashing figure on the world stage.

While there is no prospect of a British withdrawal from Afghanistan — in fact more troops are arriving every day — a further deterioration in the security situation in Iraq and a significant loss of British troops would greatly increase the pressure on Brown to withdraw Britain's remaining 5,500 soldiers from the country, unilaterally if necessary. It will certainly be the goal of Tehran to force the British out of Shiite-dominated southern Iraq, breaking down the international coalition, and increasing the political pressure on Congress to force the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country. The Iranians will also seek to split Britain from the United States in dealing with Iran's nuclear program, and probe weaknesses in the alliance at the U.N. Security Council.