Of friends and foes – 1812 to 2013

parliament_000Almost two centuries of friendship have taken a bit of a battering in the past few days. As we approach the anniversary of the Battle of Plattsburgh, British and American policy on the civil war in Syria is in flux. Two countries which have been friends and allies, almost since the peace of 1815, are suddenly in a complex bind.

The War of 1812 left little unresolved. While the border between Canada and the US did not move, it left both sides with a greater sense of acceptance about the border. For a century, the two Anglo-Saxon powers maintained a sometimes strained friendship, underscored by a growing sense of shared values. In the century since the beginning of World War One, that friendship has been forged in the flame of wars, both hot and cold, for the values of freedom and the rule of law. 

But, suddenly, things are very different. While President Obama has been reluctant to act in an assertive way in foreign affairs, Britain and France have urged him to accept the mantle of western leadership. President Hollande and Prime Minister Cameron pressed him to act on Libya, and he did. They advocated strong action on Syria’s use of chemical weapons – and then things went strangely wrong.

While US policy remained unclear, British policy was a model of clarity. Britain wanted action, and pressed for such in the UN. Cameron urged Obama to commit to military force, and promised to back him if he did. Parliament was summoned to an emergency session. Oddly, the vote was to be held while American policy was still murky. This was strange, because while Cameron plainly wanted action, he was in no position to deliver it unless the US was on board. Britain and France led the action in Libya – but were only able to do so with American support – and Syria is considerably further away.

To everyone’s surprise, Parliament voted against military action. For a variety of reasons – some connected to the issue at hand and some not – a number of Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs (supposedly supporters of Cameron’s coalition government) rebelled. The opposition Labour Party opportunistically voted against the government, and Cameron’s motion fell. Now there will be no British participation in any American action in Syria.

Effectively, Britain will have no foreign policy for the next two years, at least. Until the general election – planned for 2015 – it will be difficult to take seriously any pronouncements by Cameron, or by his Foreign Secretary, William Hague.

President Obama still has an opportunity to rescue his situation. Given his pledge of a “red line” over the use of chemical weapons, he needs to take decisive action, or the US, too, will have no foreign policy – in this case until 2017, when the next president takes office.

Since last week’s column, rhetoric from both the president and the secretary of state has been much tougher. We will see if it is backed by decisive action. Will action be proportionate to the president’s prior promise? Or will it be, in words of an administration official quoted in the LA Times “just muscular enough not to get mocked”? This seems a low bar by which to judge American policy. Surely, it should be muscular enough to achieve some specific objective, rather than merely designed to avoid derision? 

Quentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at brandjacknews.com


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