A wedding for all the wrong reasons

NEW YORK — Britain’s old malaise, the creeping national crisis of confidence and purpose that has afflicted the country once in every generation since the end of World War I, is back.

Talk of “chronic decline" and “looming impotence” characterizes the political debate once again.

It's hard to believe that just last year, the magnates who run the New York Stock Exchange were wringing their hands at the prospect of being overtaken by London as the global financial capital. The sixth largest economy in the world, Britain grew between 1992 and 2006 at a healthy average clip of 2.8 percent.

During the 1980s, under Margaret Thatcher, it cast off a previous bout of gloom and, ultimately, reversed what a previous generation had assumed to be an inevitable slide toward irrelevance. And what better way to overcome the self doubt of a faded empire than a royal wedding?

British tabs buzz with news of Prince William’s rumored “understanding” with longtime girlfriend Kate Middleton, an echo of the zeitgeist in pop culture back when Maggie’s England was all agog over Charles and Di. 

While the tabloids dream of wedding dresses and tuxedos, it seems the undertakers once again are measuring Britain for a casket.

Stiff upper-lips be damned, the British themselves are playing along. ICM, a polling firm, has found Britain to be the most pessimistic major nation on earth since the onset of the global economic crisis. American generals are complaining about dolorous British troops in Afghanistan. And David Beckham’s homecoming after his flop in Los Angeles won’t help.

The British ‘funk’

As the British will quickly tell you, they have reason to be glum. Their economy shrank by nearly 6 percent over the past year, and unemployment — at 7.8 percent — is at a 10-year high.

On the battlefield, American officers have resorted to tough love. In a rare public rebuke to a close ally, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, exasperated by such pessimism, condemned the “defeatism” of the commander of British forces in Afghanistan. John Nagl, the senior counterinsurgency advisor to CENTCOM commander U.S. Gen. David Petreaus, told a reporter that morale among British troops is a problem.

“The British Army, for which I have so much respect, which has such a history of success in counter-insurgency, has not done everything right in Helmand province, did not do everything right in Basra. It needs to think hard about those lessons,” he told the New Statesman and Society. And, giving new meaning to their funk, he also said their “standards of personal hygiene” left something to be desired.

The opposition Conservatives once would have rallied against such an insult to the British fighting man. But blood is in the water, and Britain’s mood looks likely to be pinned firmly on the decisions of Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his predecessor, Tony Blair. So the Tories, already inflamed by a New York Times report in July that Britain’s senior general in Afghanistan has to be ferried around by American helicopters for lack of a British one, have laid into Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s government for allegedly forsaking the troops.

Politics aside, this is serious

In fact, this hardly counts as abnormal in the U.K. British foreign policy since World War I has been a constant process of adjusting to new, generally more restrictive horizons. Since the late 1950s, Britain increasingly has sought to position itself as America’s most reliable ally, on the one hand, and Europe’s ambassador to the superpower, on the other.

That has brought both rewards (privileged access to nuclear technology and intelligence) and perils (involvement in the Iraq War and deep exposure to the U.S. subprime crash). Not just British politics, but more importantly, British foreign policy seems to be on the verge of yet another reevaluation.

Stryker McGuire, a keen American observer of the British, says the U.K.’s day as a “pocket superpower” appears to be over. McGuire, the longtime London bureau chief for Newsweek magazine, penned a devastating piece titled "The Last Gasps of the British Empire" which ran on the cover of the magazine's  Aug. 1 international edition. 

“Tony Blair made a final stab at greatness with what amounted to a 51st-state strategy: by locking Britain into America’s wars — on terror, in Afghanistan and in Iraq — London achieved an importance it hadn’t had since Churchill,” wrote McGuire in the Times of London last week.

 “But whatever advantage Britain gained in the short term was wiped out by the political damage Mr. Blair’s strategy caused at home. Ordinary Britons and even members of the Establishment grew critical of what they saw as London’s subservient relationship with Washington.”

For many, and not just inside Britain, but among the fast-emerging powers of Asia, the time for a reckoning is long past. Britain, like France, owes its permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council largely to history rather than any modern assessment of its relative power. 

Nonetheless, Britain even more than France has sought to justify its place there by maintaining a very active diplomatic and military presence in the world – by “punching above its weight class.” After the United States, Britain easily ranks second in terms of foreign military bases. 

That said, these policies have been debated for decades in Britain, with many arguing that the costs of sustaining such a footprint are exorbitant. Britain’s independent nuclear arsenal, badly in need of update, would be scuttled if public opinion ruled. Britain’s Royal Navy, once undisputed “sovereign of the seas,” likely will fall firmly into second-class status as the 21st century continues and other powers, including China, Japan and a former British colony, India, embark on massive naval expansion programs.

So, Britain staggers in the dark, muttering about the unfairness of it all and those damned tricky Americans. Is this the end of the “special relationship?”

Like Britain’s self-esteem, the relationship itself has its natural ups and downs. In times of crisis, they consistently prove durable. In fact, at the very end of the last period of British psychic funk, in 1982, Ronald Reagan offered to loan a U.S. aircraft carrier to the diminished Royal Navy (which no longer operated one) so that Britain could retake the Falkland Islands from Argentina. (Thatcher, citing a lack of trained crews to man such a complex ship, politely declined). 

Famously, Britain retook the islands, rebuilt its economy and reasserted its influence. Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s wedding in 1981 put the royal family back on the world’s “A” list, and British film stars and musicians seemed to regain their footing, too.

All these false dawns, however, take their toll on the national psyche. As the 20th century drew to a close, Tony Blair’s election and the “new dawn” he proclaimed seemed a reasonable ambition, and many felt Britain might well have found it’s natural international buoyancy after decades of relative decline.

Looking back now, it seems that Blair’s “Cool Britannia” was just another gyration, a false high, so to speak.  If so, it’s fair to say Britain’s cousins across the pond hope the national sulk currently on display is an example of the opposite problem, and just a prelude to yet another corner turned and another walk down the aisle.