One of the great conceits of American millennials is that nothing before the iPhone was invented can possibly be relevant to modern world. I’m proud to say my own Generation X cares deeply about the world’s history and problems, which has helped inform our sloth. But millennials, by and large, don’t care at all.
Unfortunately, they’re sometimes right. The past doesn’t matter. Americans are often condemned for having short attention spans, and there’s no doubt that on certain issues – like, oh, I don’t know, Afghanistan comes to mind – we could use a little more historical perspective. But on others, like Thursday’s British elections, they’re spot on.
Britain – by which we mean England, really, with its additional plug-and-play Celtic dominions – is a highly evocative place-name. For many Americans, it conjures up redcoats and Paul Revere, jolly jack tar sailors against a Caribbean Jack Sparrow, and plucky Battle-of-Britain pilots being led by a man who drank champagne in the bathtub. At noon. Theirs is sort of a residually martial image, leavened with eccentricity and tea, even if their epaulettes have grown a little shabby.
Unfortunately, that is very, very far from what their national election tells us, which is that the British are no longer a great power. Indeed, despite having a UN Security Council veto and the fifth-largest world economy, it’s not even clear if they are a power at all. Britain’s military is smaller than at any point since the Revolutionary War, and though they disagree on many issues, neither the incumbent Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron nor the opposition Labor leader Ed Millibrand has any plans to change that.
It is true that the British public is deeply divided ahead of Thursday’s election. There is disagreement about public spending, which Cameron plans to cut. There’s disagreement about Europe – not its existence, for the most part, but whether Britain should belong to its Union. There’s disagreement about immigration, though really only the mildly frattish UK Independence Party wants to talk about it. And there’s disagreement from the less-and-less subdued Celtic peripheries about whether they should be in Britain at all.
Yet there’s no disagreement in whether Britain should play a larger role – its traditionally larger role – on the world stage. The answer is no. And that’s not an elite consensus opinion, like EU membership might be, but a broadly held belief. There are no votes in the defense budget. The residual impression Americans have of Great Britannia is profoundly false, and even under a Conservative government, that is unlikely to change. That means in the near future, Britain is less likely to be supportive of US policy towards Russia or Syria than are the far less historically stylized Denmark or France.
The millennials aren’t totally right, of course, because it was precisely their kind of day-to-day absorption that helped push Britain out of the defense business. America is not always a great ally. The British followed us into two wars in the past decade, over the consternation of many of their voters and it didn’t really win them many favors.
Part of being allies is that you don’t need favors, of course; bilateral relationships, particularly our Special Relationship, are not South Street fish-markets. There shouldn’t be haggling. But London sent troops alongside Americans to places they didn’t need to be, and some died, and that helped sour the residual redcoat in them. We could have at least made a gracious comment about the Falklands.
It’s not just Britain, however. The US has a bad track record of appreciating countries that stick their necks out for us, partially due to the self-centeredness of the leader of the Free World, and partially due to the moralistic streak in our foreign policy. Why say thank you when they should be doing it anyway?
One of the most galling recent examples was Georgia, which sent a significant proportion of its military to fight in Iraq, vainly begging for American aid when Russian tanks were overrunning its territory in 2008. Or the Poles, who had likewise assumed a major role in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, being embarrassed by the US unexpectedly yanking its proposed missile defense system out from under in 2009, at the express wish of Vladimir Putin. Both countries are now less friendly with the United States, and small wonder.
However the elections turn out – Cameron or Millibrand, Labor or Conservative, the Scottish nationalists or UK Iota Pi – not much will change for America. The millennials are right and the redcoats are gone. Republican Presidential candidates often talk about restoring our alliances; but if we ever want the British back, next time, we might want to offer something concrete in return. And maybe occasionally say thank you.
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