In 2003, the choice that confronted Blair was not one he wanted to make either, having sought to place Britain at the heart of the EU and the U.S.-led security order as part of a newly confident, interventionist Britain prepared to act on the world stage. The reality of events shattered that dream. The choices of others meant he could not avoid the choice between the U.S. and Europe. The decision Blair made then, allying himself tightly with Bush, defined his premiership but, because of Britain’s EU membership, never threatened trade. (Harold Wilson, another former Labour prime minister, made a different choice in the 1960s, when he refused to join the U.S. in Vietnam even though Britain, then not yet a member of the precursor to the EU, was economically dependent on American loans.)
Read: It’s Boris Johnson’s Britain now
Today, Johnson is facing the same choice. Only this time, the U.S. president is flirting with a trade war with Europe at the same time as an actual war in the Middle East, and Britain’s economy is no longer indebted to America but highly integrated with Europe. This reality means Johnson may soon be forced to reset Britain’s economic and security strategy simultaneously, pulling the country out of the EU and renegotiating its trading relationship with the Continent, while also reacting to Washington’s bellicose unilateralism.
Inside 10 Downing Street, there is a bullishness about resolving the strategic dilemma and a belief that the country has been beset by years of drift that cannot, through force of circumstance, continue. One current official and one former official who spoke with me said Brexit was not as much of a problem as often assumed—that on foreign policy and defense, the EU had shown almost no real capacity to act independently, with little capability and even less will, leaving the “E3” of Britain, France, and Germany as the only serious vehicle to coordinate “European” policy.
Under Theresa May, Britain sought to balance the relationship by acting in unison with France and Germany while trying to form a bridge between the U.S. and Europe, particularly on Iran. Johnson has begun pivoting to the United States, albeit slowly. In July 2019, Britain spurned an American proposal for a U.S.-led maritime force to protect commercial shipping from Iranian piracy following the capture of a British-flagged ship by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. By August, after Johnson replaced May, Britain signed up to the U.S.-led force, while European allies declined the invitation. Internally, British officials said the move was simply a recognition of the military reality—that whatever European capitals might wish, there is simply no alternative to American power in defense and security. Even during the presidency of Barack Obama, Britain and France were unable to carry out military action against the Libyan regime of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi without American support. “On economic questions, we’re likely to stay quite close to Europe,” one former British Foreign Office official told me. “But if it’s a military decision, there’s no choice.”