Chatham House: Independent thinking on international affairs

International Affairs

Britain, Europe and the United States: change and continuity

Arthur Cyr, November 2012

A useful analytic distinction between structural and policy differences was made by Henry Kissinger; the former must be accommodated while the latter may be resolved. There is no shortage of tensions and disagreements between the United States and the nations of Europe. Likewise, the bilateral alliance between Britain and the US has been defined in part by disagreements. Even during the Second World War, when the relationship was redefined in modern terms, there were strong conflicts despite the extraordinary incentives for cooperation.

From the start, a key strength of the Anglo-American alliance was emphasis on institutional structures for the long term, viewed as a complement to the essential immediate cooperation in fighting and ultimately defeating the Axis powers. The insight of Jean Monnet and others in employing economic tools for political and diplomatic ends has proven essential. The fortieth anniversary of Britain's entry into the European Community is a useful benchmark for retrospective analysis. For the US, the twin commitments of an active international role and unification of Europe around economic matters has been remarkably consistent. As John Mearsheimer has argued, the end of the Cold War removed fundamental incentives for cooperation. Nonetheless, institutional structures of both the EU and NATO have survived.

Britain traditionally has been reluctant to engage in continuous institutional engagement with Europe, beyond the requirements of military alliances helpful or essential to national security. The lengthy uneven character of the road to membership in Europe's economic institutions reflects this fundamental attitude. Currently, Britain's ambiguous role of participation in European institutions but not in the euro may in fact facilitate transatlantic cooperation, and illustrates the usefulness of Kissinger's point. The fading of militarism in Europe since 1945 is a fundamental accomplishment, often overlooked in contemporary economic debate.

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