The British are angry. Or at least some of them are. Specifically, those who wonder why the United States has declared itself neutral in the dispute between Britain and Argentina over oil exploration in the Falklands. When the US asks for military or moral support the British are usually the first ones there. Moreover, as far they are concerned the status of the Falklands was decided by the war back in 1982. Not only did British soldiers sacrifice their lives but they won. So as some British students put it, “what do the Americans think they are doing…?” Actually, in this context the better question would be “who do the Americans think they are?” because that is the crux of the dilemma for the United States.
If you ask people outside of the western hemisphere to name members of the Organization of American States many will start off with New York and California. The fact that we have a continental name just like Africans and Europeans is virtually unknown. This fact of life was reinforced when I was working in the Middle East. One afternoon my Egyptian secretary Nermine laughingly came in to tell me she had just been on the phone with the editor of a newspaper in Venezuela who wanted to call on me. She referred to “the American Embassy” and he had corrected her saying it should be ” United States Embassy” since people from Venezuela are also Americans. Nervously, I asked Nermine what she had replied. “I laughed” she said simply. “I told him ‘don’t be silly!’ Everyone knows Americans are from the United States!” When he rolled in ten minutes later he looked ready for battle but it disappeared in the warmth of the famous Arab hospitality of my office. Because the US has so many international affiliations and is a kind of global next door neighbour to much of the world, the strong identification and history with our neighbours in the Americas (including Canada) are not easily discerned or appreciated by others.
The British have a special form of myopia called the Special Relationship. This term recognizes a particular bond between the US and Britain and is a constant reference point for the British and the American governments when they are dealing with each other. The problem is that it has not made it into the global lexicon. US officials use it in speeches to the British, but have different cherished diplomatic expressions for others. So if US warm words are not backed up by unequivocal support for British positions, the ‘special relationship’ begins to ring hollow at times of diplomatic stress.
Personally, I think the US government is sincere in believing in the special relationship but it means something quite different for them than it does for the British. For the British the special relationship is part of policy, meaning that we are there for each other and that we put Britain first among country relationships. I suspect however, for the various American adminstrations since FDR the special relationship simply denotes a fact of life based in history. We have a shared history through empire. We have inherited traditions. We speak English and the flow of our citizens back and forth is a given. Being friends with Britain is part of the US reality. But it is not our only reality. We have other facts of life (as do they). These include that we are part of the Americas. The largest ethnic minority in the US are Latino-Americans. Whatever our affinities with Great Britain, remnants of colonial outposts and the exploitation of resources around them are not part of them.
It appears to be the Monroe Doctrine versus the Special Relationship. In reality, it is also the US preferring not to deal with the political fallout of choosing between a neighbour and a friend. So here we go again with the US as the piggy in the middle – squirming.