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Britain and the US – a special nuclear relationship

This article is over 14 years, 10 months old
A decade ago Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of the US’s leading strategic thinkers, published a book called The Grand Chessboard.
Issue 2039

A decade ago Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of the US’s leading strategic thinkers, published a book called The Grand Chessboard.

There he surveyed the globe, assessing the threats to the primacy of the US.

There was one state, however, that Brzezinski dismissed brutally: “Great Britain is not a geostrategic player… Its ambivalence regarding European unification and its waning special relationship with America have made Great Britain increasingly irrelevant…

“It is America’s key supporter, a very loyal ally, a vital military base, and a close partner in critically important intelligence activities. Its friendship needs to be nourished, but its policies do not call for sustained attention.”

Nothing in the past ten years has happened to alter this judgement. Indeed, George Bush’s off-hand “Yo Blair!” to a fawning Tony Blair at the St Petersburg G8 summit last July dramatised the extent to which the US continues to take British subservience for granted.

Ever since Winston Churchill took office as prime minister in May 1940 the British establishment has sought to preserve a global role by aligning itself as closely as possible with the US.

This doesn’t mean that there haven’t been conflicts. Thus, behind the facade of the wartime alliance against Adolf Hitler, Churchill came under intense pressure from President Franklin Roosevelt to start dismantling the British Empire and to open its hitherto closed markets to US capital.

Britain’s allegedly independent nuclear deterrent has been one way that the British government has sought to combat the problem of simply being taken for granted by the US.

Secret decision

The initial decision to develop nuclear weapons was taken secretly in January 1947 by Labour prime minister Clement Attlee without consulting the cabinet.

Foreign secretary Ernest Bevin helped tip the balance in favour of a British A-bomb after a humiliating interview with US secretary of state Jimmy Burns.

Bevin told a crucial meeting, “We have got to have this bloody thing over here whatever it costs… We have got to have the bloody Union Jack flying on top of it.”

When Churchill replaced Attlee in 1951, he worried that Britain’s role as a US air base had made the country “the bull’s eye of a Soviet attack”. Unable to influence American nuclear strategy, he insisted that Britain follow the US and the Soviet Union by developing its own hydrogen bomb.

Going thermonuclear, which Britain did in 1957, would ensure “more respect for our views” in the US.

Exactly the same arguments were used by Margaret Thatcher to justify the decision in 1980 to buy Trident submarine-launched nuclear ballistic missiles from the US, and by the Blair government today in support of its plan to replace Trident with a new generation of missiles.

But all this is a tissue of illusions. For one thing, since the early 1960s Britain has depended on US-produced delivery systems for its nuclear warheads.

For another, it is politically inconceivable that Britain would use its weapons independently of the US. Any prime minister that did would expose Britain to retaliation without the protection of the US’s vast nuclear arsenal.

Nuclear weapons and the US alliance have given the British establishment the illusion of global power. The result has been complicity in great crimes such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the squandering of British resources and lives on a bloated military establishment.

Blair has pushed official British subservience to the point of provoking huge popular disgust.

Last year a poll revealed that British public opinion thinks Bush is a bigger threat to world peace than either Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or North Korea’s Kim Jong-il.

In that sea-change in popular attitudes lies the hope of a final escape from the murderous fantasy of the “special relationship”.

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