Tony Blair's 'Special Relationship'

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In the Knopf edition of Tony Blair's A Journey: My Political Life, the opening sentence is: "America's burden is that it wants to be loved, but knows it can't be." Presumably, this introduction is an add-on to support publication of the book in the United States, where the book is a bestseller. But as I read A Journey, I was repeatedly reminded of two books about Blair that PublicAffairs published in his tenure as prime minister.

The first, by BBC commentator James Naughtie, was called The Accidental American: Tony Blair and the Presidency (2004), which like its title makes the case that Blair, by instinct, style, and circumstance, had an association with American presidents that was unlike that of any of his modern predecessors. The second book, by the British writer William Shawcross, was The Allies: The U.S., Britain, Europe and the War in Iraq (also 2004). It was, essentially, a defense of Blair's support of the American invasion of Iraq, despite growing evidence (finally conclusive) that the British public and even some of his closest advisers thought he was making a serious mistake.

In A Journey, and in articles and speeches over the years, Blair argues that September 11 reshaped the world and that it was essential for Britain to stand with the United States in challenging the dangers of Islamist extremism. Blair and Bush conflated the belief that Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction inevitably included a partnership of some sort with al Qaeda. We now know that was not, in fact, an immediate danger. Yet Blair's sense of the compelling need to join the United States in meeting the security threat posed by Saddam, al Qaeda, and Islamist terrorism is--for American readers, at least--the central message of the book.

The reviews of A Journey in the American media have, not surprisingly, focused on Blair's defense of his Iraq policies and actions. But this is a much more expansive memoir than that subject, and very substantial parts of the book, as well-written and eloquent as they may be, will be of little interest to Americans unless they are captivated by the intricacies of British political machinations. But this issue of Blair's affinity for the United States and its significance for our political era is worth considering on its own merits. As far back, at least, as Winston Churchill, there has been a periodic British reconsideration of what is known as "the special relationship" between the United States, a unique engagement that is unlike any other American alliance.

Having lived in the United Kingdom for four years in the 1960s and 1980s, I can say with certainty that the extent of "the special relationship" means much more to the British than it does to Americans, given the breadth and range of U.S. global interests. But there is a legitimate intimacy between these two countries that includes a sharing of national security information. And at the softer end of the relationship spectrum, there is a cultural sensibility that is distinctly complementary, and less of an American one-way export than is true with its relations with much of the rest of the world.

The U.S. National Security Agency and Britain's counterpart GCHQ work in tandem, monitoring traffic in all forms of communication, and while I can't vouch for the details, the American-British collaboration in nuclear missile technology and intelligence resources is certainly closer than with any other country. As for culture, when it comes to films, television, popular music, fashion, celebrity, and literature, there is a cross-Atlantic exchange that occasionally ebbs and flows but is an important element of self-definition in both societies, at least among important parts of the population.

So what comes through to me in A Journey is that Tony Blair really does have a feeling for and about America and its political rhythms that was and still is different than that of others in Britain's leadership class. This attachment to the United States, I suspect, is one of the reasons that he left the British electorate with a sense that he had somehow let them down by diverting them to wars that his countrymen felt were not theirs to fight. The formidable Margaret Thatcher eventually wore out her welcome with British voters, also. She was a distinctly British personality, though, whose only true American soul-mate was Ronald Reagan, who shared her stalwart convictions uncluttered by self-doubt. Together, they faced down communism and recalibrated their economies toward capitalism of the sort they preferred. But Thatcher was never an accidental American.

As a journalist, I knew two of Blair's predecessors as leaders of the Labor Party: Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock. As I wrote when Blair stepped down in 2007, a singular feature of Foot and Kinnock was their almost total lack of understanding of the U.S.-British relationship. In 1983, Foot told me that he had not been in the United States since the 1950s, when he was a newspaper reporter. And when Kinnock returned from a U.S. trip in 1984, he spoke in a private conversation with striking contempt both about the American political system and the flaws of our society.

For better or worse, Tony Blair's tenure as prime minister largely will be defined by his close friendship with Bill Clinton, whose political skills he admired as much, it seems, as his own, and with George W. Bush, whose time in office required Blair to make a choice whether to side with Europe and its reluctance to embrace the "War on Terror", or to align with the United States, which, of course is what he did.

One final note: Blair used the celebrated American lawyer agent Bob Barnett to negotiate the multi-million book contracts that were undoubtedly among the largest ever for a British politician. But Blair has decided to give all those royalties (something over $6 million) to British charities that will support wounded soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. Naturally, his critics assail his giving away "blood money." But nonetheless, Blair is acknowledging that he should not personally benefit from his actions as a public official. I was left wondering whether George W. Bush, whose memoirs will be published in November, will do the same with his royalties.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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