The US-Britain partnership: Is it a good thing?

Setting the Mold: The United States and Britain 1945-1950, by Robin Edmonds. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 334 pp. $22.95. THE purpose of this book is to examine the special relationship that developed between the United States and Great Britain during World War II and, from the postwar record of that relationship, draw light on whether this has been, and continues to be, a good thing for both countries. In the process of this substantial undertaking, the book incidentally has done something else, which to me has been just as important. I have not read, since Dean Acheson's ``Present at the Creation,'' anything else that was so helpful to my understanding of the shape of today's world and how we got where we are. For example, ponder this passage: ``...the United States, which had enjoyed roughly half the world's GNP after the second World War, had to content itself with generating rather less than one quarter 30 years later.''

The Reagan administration in Washington is today trying to regain the dominant military role the US played during the early postwar years when, on a foundation of half the world's gross national product, it possessed not only a nuclear monopoly but also a virtual monopoly in long-range sea and air power. For the first five years of the new era (post-World War II) the US was the only true superpower in the world. And during those early postwar years it enjoyed the supportive partnership of a British empire which, at that time, ``was still at the largest extent that it ever reached in its entire history,'' with a GNP that was still ``the second largest in the world'' and armed forces virtually equal in numbers and in quality of equipment to those of the US.

But today not only is the US producing but a quarter of the world's GNP, the nearly equal Britain of 1947 in terms of military power and global reach has sunk economically to the point where its per-capita GNP is below that of Italy and soon may even be passed by Spain. The foundation of empire is gone. So is the empire.

In absolute terms, the US economy has continued to grow marvelously since those early postwar years. It remains the most vibrant and productive economy of any major power, even if it is now suffering an unfavorable trade balance. But the economic revival of much of the rest of the world, particularly Western Europe, and the gradual development of long-range sea and air power by the Soviet Union have deprived the US of its near-monopoly of power during the years from 1945 to 1950. During those first five postwar years, the Soviet Union possessed great defensive power and overwhelming land power along its military frontiers. But it had no global reach and, until midsummer of 1949, no nuclear power.

This book will be studied particularly by those both in the US and in Britain who are grappling with the problem of Britain's future and whether Britain makes a mistake in continuing to base its policy primarily on its ``special relationship'' with the US.

The author does not commit himself decisively to the proposition that Britain has made a mistake, but he leans in that direction and feels that Britain and the US would be better off today had it cast its postwar lot with Western Europe and become, like France, a truly European country. Britain has instead straddled the fence, clinging to its special relation with the US while also hanging onto a shadow (in the form of the Commonwealth) of what once was a mighty empire and halfway joining Europe.

The case is sometimes made that the US and Britain have helped each other by influencing each other in wise directions, but the author points out that the two biggest foreign policy blunders of the postwar era (Vietnam and Suez) were made in spite of the disapproval of the other partner. The British disapproved of American Far East policy which, from 1949 to 1972, was built on the presumed hostility of China. This led into both the Korean and Vietnam wars. But the British were unable to dissuade Washington from the anti-China line of policy. Equally, the US disapproved of postwar British policy in the Middle East, which was aimed at maintaining a British imperial role. But US disapproval did not prevent Britain from the disastrous Suez affair, which, instead of restoring a British role in the Middle East, destroyed what had been left of that role. It advertised for all to see that the British empire had lost its vitality and its structure.

There will, of course, continue to be a special relationship of sorts between the US and the United Kingdom, if only because, as Mr. Edmonds points out, it's so easy for the two to communicate with each other. The closeness of the relationship was demonstrated most recently in the Falkland Islands war when the US, without question or hesitation, put its intelligence and other services at British disposal. Britain is the only ally that has a relationship extending outside a specific area. The alliances with France, Germany, Italy, etc., apply strictly to Europe. The alliance with Britain is still global, although it becomes less so as the empire recedes into history.

The author tackles such an important and weighty subject as the Anglo-American relationship with excellent equipment. His career started at Oxford, where he became president of the Oxford Union, a position that leads almost automatically into either Parliament or the Foreign Office. He chose the latter. He served there for 23 years, during which time his postings included Vienna; Rome; Cairo; Warsaw; and Nicosia, Cyprus. He retired in 1978, took a research fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson Center at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and an advisory role with Kleinworth Benson, a major London investment banking firm. His first work on history was ``Soviet Foreign Policy, the Brezhnev Years'' (1983).

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