A rolling stone, as the cliché goes, gathers no moss. According to musician Robert Zimmerman, it is “like a complete unknown,” indeed, “with no direction home.” Under his more popular identity, Bob Dylan, he penned “Like a rolling stone,” often regarded the crème de la crème song in its genre. It might also be the swansong of a fabled bilateral relationship. Gone awry, that relationship arguably symbolises the upended global status of two partners.
Anglo-American relations shed light on how Great Britain and the United States fare globally today. Although US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, described those relations as “the beating heart of the entire world (on May 8, 2019, in London), little did he acknowledge how those relations had been headed south for quite a while, even worse, within two more months they would face a crossroads. Magnifying the transatlantic setting, we see many more crossroads awaiting both countries.
Reduced to its lowest common denominator, Anglo, bilateral relations have waxed and waned for other dynamics than ethnic identity. When political, those relations show more multilateral contours than otherwise, with military discourses (as, for example, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, from 1949), and policy trade-offs (as in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development). When economic, they revolve around one form of a liberal order or another, including its increasingly challenging form, intra-transatlantic competition. Yet, when cultural, discourses have rarely, if ever, articulated a Protestant work-ethic, a puritan platform of expectations, or even of a bilateral veto-power monopoly in multilateral negotiations. US vital interests throughout the 20th century, in fact, were anything but cultural. No matter, no “beating heart of the entire world” ever sat on the passenger seat.
Small wonder it was that British Ambassador to the US Sir Kim Darroch shunned the high-ground of Anglo-American relations with his White House exasperation. His was not the first leaked complaint. Under President Bill Clinton, Robin Renwick (British ambassador 1991-95) described US foreign policy as “weak,” and the policy-making environment “chaotic.” Clinton’s greater capacity to smoothen ruffled feathers papered the cracks better than Donald J Trump’s pittance.
Trump’s administration exposes a Republican distaste of transatlantic relations, even though Republicans want to monopolise Anglo-Saxon credentials. He lionises a fragmented movement today: McCarthyism of the early 1950s, Richard M Nixon’s late-1960s conservatism, Jerry Falwell’s short-lived Moral Majority a decade later, and Ronald Reagan’s assertive 1980s tenure. Trump’s “America First” populism is seen as the Grand Ole Party’s “homecoming.”
Downgrading transatlantic relationship has a history. President George W Bush’s Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, once distinguished between “old” and “new” Europe (literally “west” versus “east” Europe), promoting not only interest-driven calculations, as opposed to cultural, but also how malleable interests eclipse bedrock cultural counterparts. Though the cornerstone 1941 Atlantic Charter served as an Anglo-American highpoint, Winston Churchill was sidelined by Franklin D Roosevelt in the subsequent conferences with “Uncle Joe,” that is, the “gulag” perpetrator, Joseph Stalin. Simultaneously, John Maynard Keynes, one of the century’s greatest economists and a flamboyant British representative at the Bretton Woods trade and monetary conference, was “trumped” by Harry Dexter White, his US counterpart (whose suicide as a plausible communist exposed McCarthyism). Britain’s sympathy for the US civil war “South” was less out of Anglo-Saxon fraternity than a cotton/tobacco thirst.
Special Anglo-American relations stemmed from late 19th-century diplomatic exchanges, when Britain’s global leadership faced European resistance, and the United States, having consummated its own western expansion, spilled over, as it transpired, towards Asia. Today’s US conservative revivalism is not to an Anglo-Saxon identity with transatlantic moorings but a US-specific Anglo-Saxon variation, just as today’s transatlantic relations resemble those during the US independence war, with France the closest, Britain the farthest.
Frequent “transatlantic scorecards” (of the Brookings-Robert Bosch Foundation Transatlantic Initiative) reiterate that reality. The latest found overall US-European relations registering a paltry 3.9 (out of 10). France scored the highest, 4.6, Great Britain 3.5, with Germany and Turkey 3.3 (and Russia’s 2.9 being the basement). France apart, all scores were below the collective European Union’s 3.7. Of all types of relations, military got the most favourable rating, with 4.4, while economic notched up 3.8 and political 3.6. Aligning culture with the military or economic in that stream distorts the entire story: politics becomes more than politics with cultural usurpation (ostensibly to preserve some threatened status quo).
Trump is clearly not the source of this slide, but his impact may serve as the dividing line between a healthy (“special”) and an evaporating transatlantic relationship. Evaporation may not be an idle term: at the broader level it syncs with a United States losing global clout, at the narrower, identities getting fudged. Dylan’s lyrics echo again: “like a complete unknown,” the United States sought many a means to make itself relevant and necessary in a new 20th-century playground, the international domain; but the thinning audience, which can only go so far as a follower, left the United States “with no direction home.”
Home is where the changes matter most for pecking the global order. Here the United States has changed the most: Anglo-Saxons have diminished, as a population proportion, from just over 25 percent in 1980 to below 9 percent in 2000. Increasingly, more people of a global origin demand attention today: Africans (15 percent), Asians (6 percent), and Hispanics (18 percent), among others.
“Like a rolling stone,” the United States does not face this predicament alone: Great Britain is also building walls, if Brexit can be interpreted that way. Europe must be kept aside for both countries, as too Africans and Asians, plus Latin Americans in the United States. Fending off “the complete unknown” countries against this surge is the clarion domestic call. Precisely when both countries can only be salvaged by that global community, Theresa May’s United Kingdom and Trump’s United States may be spending their ammunition unnecessarily.
Or the rest of the world demands more relative attention than can be given. Britain traded away part of its enormous historical global connections to join the European Community from the 1970s. It cannot expect returning to the same world, or for Britain to be accepted back as is.
Similarly, the United States earned a glow with the “single superpower” name-tag in the 1990s that is being lost to the “single world policeman” mantra it has opted for instead. Shifting from the sunny atmosphere of the former to recreating the Hobbesian “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” State of Nature in the 21st century can only exact a heavy toll, as quarantining countries and dispatching naval fleets against this country or that exemplify. Sure, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and now Iran, qualified as “rogue,” but too many peoples and countries have been either destroyed or exhausted to enjoy the Fourth Industrial Revolution fruits, the transformation of “gone case” countries into growth-engines, or other neo-liberal thrills. Suspicion reigns supreme.
When external adversaries multiply, the dominant domestic cultural flock cannot but pay. Great Britain faces it, belatedly, the United States, dramatically. Dylan’s words ring louder still: “You used to laugh about everybody that was hanging out.” Yet, the last laugh (“You don’t talk so loud, now you don’t feel so proud”) could be the most damaging for all.
Imtiaz A Hussain is the Head of Global Studies & Governance Program at Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).