WHEN Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sent a British armada off into the cold gray waters of the South Atlantic, she was prepared to go it alone. To retrieve the Falklands from Argentine occupation, she was ready to run heavy risk. In themselves, the Falklands, those craggy, wind-swept outposts of British presence, were worthless. But to Margaret Thatcher they were symbols of honor, and her crusade was one of justice. On behalf of it, she was prepared to risk British lives, the loss of capital ships and expensive aircraft, and, if she failed, her own prime ministership.

She was ready to have Britain undertake this risky venture alone, but she knew that US support could ease the task, perhaps be crucial in ensuring victory. So the British ambassador was sent scurrying around Washington, buttonholing officials in the White House, at the State Department, at the Pentagon.

His shopping list was substantial. Britain wanted aviation fuel and emergency airfield equipment shipped to British staging points. Only the United States was capable of supplying sophisticated intelligence the British needed about hostile deployments in the Falklands area.

The British got what they asked for, even though US support for them caused major political problems for the United States in Latin America which took many long months to resolve.

This week Mrs. Thatcher repaid the debt. Though her decision would cause a political row at home, she authorized the US to fly air strikes against Libya from British air force bases.

Mrs. Thatcher may have her flaws, but lack of gutsiness is not one of them.

So how come other European nations did not rally to the American cause? True, Britain had had a British policewoman cut down by Libyan ``diplomats'' in an ugly London melee a couple of years ago, but other Europeans have suffered, too. Terrorism is also their problem; it's hard not to argue that Qaddafi is an international bandit.

But Europe is a disparate continent of proud and sovereign nations, rarely united among themselves. To suggest that they would fall in line behind the rich and powerful and youthful US is probably fanciful.

Some governments simply did not believe the US military action would be effective. Some were motivated by concern for their substantial trade ties with Libya, and the presence of their own citizens there.

Fear froze some into inaction. A couple of them have done secret deals with terrorist groups to live and let live. Some were mindful of probable outcries from political opponents at home. While some of this criticism might be genuine, there is also a predictable claque to be heard from of people who opposed US policy in Vietnam, who oppose US missiles in Europe, who opposed US policy in El Salvador, and who now oppose it in Nicaragua and rally swiftly to oppose any new American initiative.

The European relationship with the US often teeters between affection and antagonism. Many Europeans, for instance, affect disdain for culture in America, a society which, one Swedish journalist told me, has ``gone from barbarism to decadence without hitting civilization in between.'' Yet when even the French embrace hot dogs and Disney, clearly American style, culture, and artistes are encroaching around the world.

American power is something some Europeans resent, but upon which they know they are ultimately dependent. American wealth is something some Europeans dismiss as tawdry, but want to share in.

None of this is a crisis. European nations and the United States have pursued their own national interests and gone their own ways on various occasions, but the overall values that bind have remained unbroken.

Rich and powerful nations are rarely loved. Perhaps the best they may hope for is that their leadership will ultimately accord them respect.

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