Religion aside, political differences between the countries have been formed by profoundly diverse historical experiences. If we still use the vocabulary of left and right, then the veteran observer William Pfaff is correct to say that there is no important political party in Western Europe today that does not stand to the left of the Democrats on social issues. Despite all their demographic challenges, European countries are not going to abandon their welfare systems. Nor are they going to lose their aversion to war. While Iraq may have been a high point of the special relationship, it was also the beginning of its end. Whereas many Americans regret the war, resentment in David Cameron’s Britain — the belief that the country was transformed into a client state of Washington — is more bitter.
While Europe and the United States face grave, though distinctive, economic crises, the other common interests that bound them are fading. Whatever else Angela Merkel may do, she is not going to invade Belgium or Poland, and Putin’s Russia, though obnoxious enough, scarcely represents a strategic threat. As to the Middle East, Europe and America are much concerned, but their interests don’t necessarily coincide. (The bombing campaign that helped bring down Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi could prove a final hurrah.) Writing on the Times Op-Ed page recently, Jeremi Suri of the University of Texas said that the Obama administration should set three realistic international goals: maintaining the dollar as the credible global reserve currency; halting the proliferation of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons; and cultivating peaceful relations with China. Nowhere was Europe mentioned.
Of course the British and Americans will remain linked by language and culture, as they were long before they became military allies. But it might be time to call it a day on our so-called special relationship.