“Who the hell do you Americans think you are?” my uncle, red-faced, raged at me from across the dinner table. Circumstance due to divorce had prevented me from knowing my uncle, the former Don of Oxford University’s Nuffield College, until I started attending the University of Aberdeen two years prior to this heated conversation. “What gives you Americans the right . . .” his remarks were piercing, and too much to bear. They were so out of character for the studied man, steeped in the British tradition, whom I had come to respect. I felt like an outsider in a place I recently adopted as my home away from home.
The topic of conversation that cold summer’s evening in Devonshire had drifted from American accounting practices and the stunning failure of Arthur Anderson, to a possible war with Iraq. What my uncle expressed was a valid, growing view that the U.S. acts too “unilaterally.”
When I returned home to the States later last summer, he mailed me a conciliatory note with a clipping from Britain’s conservative paper, The Daily Telegraph. The article moderately spelled out the differences between European and American views. Europe wishes to see multilateral solutions when conducting foreign policy, as opposed to what Europeans view as the dangerous “shoot first, ask questions later” American way of dealing with the world’s troubles. Being a particularly pro-American newspaper, the article then focused on how Americans dismiss most European actions as “weak kneed” and, using the classic dirty word from World War II, downright “appeasement.” The British have a great way of separating themselves from the continent when they need to.
As the summer wore on, and I readjusted to the American way of life, I read more articles in notable political journals such as The Economist on the “growing divide” between the two continents and Britain’s role in the whole Iraq fiasco. Britain and her prime minister, Tony Blair, are taking a huge gamble on committing to a war in Iraq. It is a motion that is hugely unpopular amongst backbenchers in the P.M.’s own Labour Party and even the Thatcherite Conservative Party’s position is, at best, only thinly supportive. To quote one senior M.P.’s comments to me in a rather candid conversation, “Iraq has nothing to do with us.”
Alas, I am forced to fall back on an expression I heard in my first year, Introduction to International Relations class: “Great Britain does not have permanent allies, nor permanent enemies, only permanent interests”. A botched war with Iraq would give the UK its first taste of the American “Vietnam War syndrome” spelling disaster to our relationship with those who are our best friends in this world.
Gunnar Heinrich is a visiting 3rd year Politics & International Relations major from the University of Aberdeen, King’s College in Scotland.