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For Better or Worse

Normally it's the British who compare the widths of the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel and wonder whether the special relationship does them any good. But with British historian Andrew Roberts asking Americans to carry on with the white man's burden and Homeland Security czar Michael Chertoff borrowing from Britons who equate citizenship with whiteness, Americans may well wonder if it's time to call the whole thing off. It would be a shame, though: While the "Yo Blair" era has featured plenty of indulgence in the special relationship's worse side, this summer marks the sixtieth anniversary of its finest hour, and a chance to return to that tradition.

The special relationship comes in two basic flavors, exemplified by Winston Churchill before and after U.S. entry into World War II. Both Tony Blair and George W. Bush have benefited from comparisons to Churchill's 1940 persona. The man who rightly understood the global menace, Churchill made effective use of essential Englishness. He gave eloquent voice to the glory due "the few"--as in, "never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few," or "we few, we happy few, we band of brothers." In the moment of the Blitz, he fittingly evoked the ambitious and outnumbered adventurers at Agincourt, the embattled Protestant island on the fringe of a Catholic continent, insular England as home on a green, cloud-bound land in a sea of encroaching enemies. Yet, half-American himself, Churchill managed to extend this deeply English sense of self not only to Britain and its empire but also, via his capacious concept of "the English-speaking peoples," to the United States.

Americans always liked seeing themselves as a people apart, but they long since became a nation unfit to identify as a happily besieged few, a band of embattled brothers. The last time the United States stood as underdog against a foreign foe was their war against Britain in 1812. Not long after, the U.S. waged a short war against Mexico as, in Ulysses S. Grant's words, "a stronger against a weaker nation." From then on, Americans should have known their country as an almost effortless empire that did not need to defend itself against rapacious neighbors and could instead pursue a continental conquest more by resistless demographic, epidemiological, and economic pushes than by military adventures. No external obstacle impeded the nation so much as its internal crisis, and, having dispensed with the Civil War, its people spread more freely than ever over a west richer in resources than any colonial archipelago. It was not that the United States acquired an empire without trying to--for its great statesmen, from Alexander Hamilton through William Seward to Theodore Roosevelt, regularly tried--but rather, without trying very hard.

Perhaps precisely because the rise to greatness happened so smoothly, we have never liked seeing ourselves as the overwhelmingly unpersecuted people we long ago became. We hearken readily to the tale of Washington's hardy few at Valley Forge or the martyrs at the Alamo. We not-so-secretly prefer the romance of the Civil War underdogs, the agrarian Confederacy, to the industrial might of the United States--The Birth of a Nation wasn't a box office smash for nothing, nor Gone With the Wind, with its faceless portrait of the destroyer William Sherman: No film similarly celebrating the Union has ever so succeeded. Americans thrill, in short, to the language of Churchill's few, the rallying cry of a cornered people who will not surrender.

But this is all a myth, and an increasingly pernicious one: The true triumphs of the special relationship came not from Churchill in 1940, but from Churchill in 1944 and in harness to Franklin Delano Roosevelt; not from isolated defiance but from global magnanimity. In working to define the postwar era the United States and the United Kingdom committed themselves to the demise of empires and an international rule of law: To the United Nations and, more importantly, to the Nuremberg tribunals and the International Monetary Fund and The World Bank, all designed to make the world after 1945 more peaceful and prosperous than the world after 1918.

Even those greater plans almost foundered on Americans' relentless reluctance to see themselves as a people of the world. Congressional critics claimed they'd be, as Senator Robert Taft said, "pouring money down a rat hole," and demanded assurances that "this country assumes no moral responsibility for a scarcity of dollars" in the rest of the world, despite John Maynard Keynes's warning that the United States would find out it ought in its own interest to shoulder such a burden. In the summer of 1947, with the world on the brink of economic and political collapse, Americans finally come around to Keynes's view, pouring money out into the world through the Marshall Plan and permitting the IMF to do likewise.

As Chris Patten has noted, these were the special relationship's real offspring: "a rule-based system for running the world's affairs," born 1944, in which "the rules should apply to everyone, including the world's only superpower," and its younger sibling of 1947, the material realization that "it's very difficult to persuade people of the merits of democracy and the rule of law when they've got empty stomachs." For the better, more prosperous and peaceful part of the twentieth century they gracefully overshadowed Churchill's vision of 1940.

The British satirist Marcus Brigstocke recently commented that "the special relationship basically boils down to the fact that we couldn't be bothered to learn French." Right back at you, Brigstocke, only it's Spanish we can scarcely trouble ourselves with over here. The English-speaking peoples' relentless tendency to stick to English looks like the thing that will continue to define us. But in our common language and with our shared history we can bespeak more appropriate ideas of our role than Roberts's and Chertoff's; and though it is too late for Tony "Yo" Blair to contribute to it, we can fashion for ourselves a better legacy.

By Eric Rauchway