According to recently leaked cables, the Obama administration agreed to give the Russians the secret serial numbers of each Trident missile in the British nuclear deterrent. It did this against the UK’s plainly published policy, and against its privately stated wishes. No doubt Mr. Obama, and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, believe this is to be a sound application of “Smart Power,” which “…involves the strategic use of diplomacy, persuasion, capacity building, and the projection of power and influence in ways that are cost-effective and have political and social legitimacy.” Or perhaps smart power is just a re-imagining of realpolitik from the Metternich era. In any case, surely Great Britain would seem hypocritical were it to complain of another country acting in it’s own self interest, in light of Lord Palmerston’s words from 1848:
Therefore I say that it is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy of England. We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.
So yes, I suppose it’s true that Britain is a second rate power today, behind the US and China. And yes it’s true that we manufactured their Trident missiles, which is how we know the serial numbers in the first place. And as Mr. Obama’s defenders will probably argue, it may also even be true that giving the Russians those serial numbers is a piddling little thing, and doesn’t compromise Britain’s defense in any meaningful way. But it’s also true that Britain has a lot of pride, and a history. And for most of the last century, that history has been influenced by a special relationship with us, the United States of America. Fighting on our side, it lost 885,000 soldiers during World War I 383,000 soldiers and sailors more during World War II.
It’s worth remembering that many of these British deaths during World War II came while fighting almost entirely alone against Nazi totalitarianism and an odious Imperial Japanese death cult. My Grand Uncle Eric, a merchant marine radioman from Cornwall, was one of the survivors of that terrible war, having had three cargo ships sunk underneath him. Many men of his generation weren’t so lucky at Dunkirk or Singapore. Nor were 1,415 of the 1,418 man crew of the Battlecruiser HMS Hood . During 1941 they went down with their ship, just three short minutes after a shell from the Bismarck slammed into her powder magazines. Ted Briggs, one of just three hypothermic survivors pulled alive after three hours in the cold water, testified to “…the sacrifice made by the squadron’s navigating officer Commander John Warrand, who stood aside and allowed him to exit the compass platform first,” and of “…the squadron commanding officer, Vice-Admiral Lancelot Holland… last seen still sitting in his admiral’s chair and making no attempt to escape the sinking wreck.”
after Pearl Harbor, the British fought with us in North Africa, at Anzio, and at Monte Cassino. They suffered 2,700 casualties alongside 6,600 of ours at beaches code named Juno, Gold, and Sword, and 17,000 more fighting against the Japanese around Imphal. That fighting, incidentally, is probably best described by George MacDonald Fraser’s “Quartered Safe Out Here.”
Britain was with us during the First Gulf War, and in Korea, though during the 50’s they began to realize that with only a third of our population and a bombed out industrial base, they would have to play a secondary role, a point made abundantly clear by President Eisenhower when he left their paratroopers hanging during the Suez crisis of 1957. And who can say whether Britain’s decision, in the wake of this perceived disloyalty, influenced their decision to let us handle Vietnam on our own? The point was certainly well taken by Ronald Reagan, who made nice with basing rights during the Falklands war.
The special relationship was back on track for the First Gulf war, surviving the tragedy of an American A-10 destroying a British personnel carrier, and tragically ending the lives of 9 young squaddies and since 2003, in spite of vicious and prolonged protests at home, they’ve helped us in Iraq. But perhaps most importantly, from Mr. Obama’s perspective, it’s worth pointing out that ever since 2001, they have steadily asked large numbers of their best young men and women, including the third in line to their throne, to serve alongside ours in what Mr. Obama has always claimed is the good, and the just war — the war we are currently fighting in the cold, ignorant mountains of Afghanistan. The war that is not going as well as any of us would like.
The war where we need all the help we can get, because we can still lose it.
So this has all been a long way of saying that the British have been our friends in the past, and they are our friends for right now, but there is nothing set in stone saying they will remain our friends into the future. Because a friend’s political support should not be taken for granted, the sacrifice of a friend’s soldiers should not be taken lightly, and at a minimum, a friend’s closely guarded nuclear secrets should not be shared like a giggling schoolgirl. Not without your friend’s permission. Not even if you think your friend doesn’t know what’s in his own best interest. Because there’s a difference between a friend and a lackey. And when you confuse a friend of many wars for a lackey, shooting spitwads at him behind his back just to score points with a bare-chested bully like Putin, it doesn’t make you look cool. It doesn’t make you look smart or powerful.
What it does is this: It make you look stupid and weak.