Allan Massie: Talk of Special Relationship is pure nostalgia

John Kerry. Picture: Getty
John Kerry. Picture: Getty
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THE Obama administration’s foreign policy has been directed chiefly to Asia and especially to America’s relations with China and Japan.

New US Secretary of State John Kerry has, however, chosen to make his first foreign tour a European one. In London, though he was notably – and sensibly – cagey when asked about the American position on the Falkland Islands, he seemed sufficiently at one with William Hague to permit revival of talk about the Special Relationship. He has warm feelings to Germany too, reminiscing happily about visiting Berlin as a boy when it was still a divided city and his father was serving as a diplomat in Bonn.

This isn’t surprising. Kerry, senator for Massachusetts for almost 30 years and the Democrats’ presidential candidate in 2004, is old-style patrician east coast – especially on his mother’s side. She was born a Forbes, descended from the family of the premier baron of Scotland, Lord Forbes, by way of the Rev John Forbes, an Aberdeen University graduate and Episcopalian minister who emigrated to the American colonies in the 18th century. Kerry is also a distant cousin, by way of his Murray of Philiphaugh ancestors, of Franklin D Roosevelt, US president 1933-45. The Kerry name, incidentally, does not denote any Irish heritage; it was adopted by his Jewish paternal great-grandfather when he emigrated from Silesia to the US. Kerry also has happy memories of childhood holidays in Brittany, where his Forbes grandfather owned a property.

All this makes him look like a throwback, out of place in the Obama administration. The impression is not false. He doesn’t really belong there; he is of a different generation and has the outlook of his generation, which grew up during the Cold War. He wasn’t Obama’s first choice to succeed Hillary Clinton in the State Department. That was Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations. Her involvement with the administration’s response to the murder of American diplomats in Tripoli dished her chances. So, the president turned to Kerry as a safe pair of hands.

Whether the hands will get much to do is another matter. Kerry is the most European of Americans. Everything about him recalls the days when Europe was the main focus of US foreign policy, and when powerful secretaries of state, George C Marshall and Dean Acheson, oversaw the rebuilding and defence of Europe after the Hitler war.

The Washington correspondent of the influential German news magazine Der Spiegel says the idea that the appointment of Kerry indicates that Europe has not been completely ousted by Asia at the top of Washington’s priority list is “not just nostalgic, but pure fantasy”.

Barack Obama has little interest in Europe. Indeed, it is arguable that he has very little interest in foreign policy at all, and that he cares about foreign affairs only in so far as they play in US public opinion. In this indifference he may well be at one with that public opinion. Americans, quite reasonably, are more interested in rebuilding their economy and in repairing their tattered social fabric than in what happens beyond the shores of the Great Republic. Questions of foreign policy played almost no part in last year’s presidential election. America now prefers to stay in the background, as it did in Libya and is doing in Syria and Mali, rather than taking the lead.

It would be unfair to say that Kerry’s appointment is mere window-dressing. There are areas where US interests are at stake and where there is work for a Secretary of State of some international standing to do; it is significant that Kerry is meeting the Russian foreign minister in an attempt to unblock the Syrian impasse. He will also work with the European Union in an attempt to revive the Palestinian peace process. But this, too, is probably of interest to Obama principally because of how it plays back home.

The truth is that secretaries of state have influence and power only in as much as the president permits. (In this respect, they are of course no different from British foreign secretaries in relation to the prime minister.) Very few secretaries of state make any real mark. Kerry will be an outsider in the Obama White House. As for Europe, the main presidential interest may be in advancing a Free Trade Agreement – but even this is regarded in Washington as much less important, and certainly less urgent, than the trans-Pacific trade agreement, and America’s relations with China. There is also the continuing uncertainty about Iran and its nuclear programme. What is clear and undeniable, however, is that the focus of American interest has moved away from Europe. The move is irrevocable, and there is nothing we can do about it. Secretary of State Kerry will make all the right and comforting noises, but it won’t mean a damn thing. His refusal to commit the US to support of the British position on the Falklands is clear evidence of how little we really count, even when the head of the State Department may personally be friendly and sympathetic to us.

The “Special Relationship”, inasmuch as it ever really existed except in the mind of British politicians and journalists, is effectively dead. There are times, and there will be times, when our interests and America’s are the same; and then, no doubt, it will be convenient and comforting to speak of the Special Relationship again. But it was always an unequal one, and only an unwillingness to admit to our diminished status could ever make us think otherwise.

William Hague may be pro-American, John Kerry may have an affection for the United Kingdom and Europe, but we should now admit that the Second World War and the Cold War belong to history, not to the politics of the world today. Harping on about the Special Relationship does us no good. If Tony Blair hadn’t been in thrall to the idea, we would surely, like France, have refused to take part in the Iraq war. That war served no British interest, unless – like Blair – you assumed that it must be in Britain’s interests to do whatever Washington wanted us to do.