Trump and Brexit Killed Winston Churchill’s Ghost
A Brexit supporting placard rests against a statue of Winston Churchill on Parliament Square in London, U.K. (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

Trump and Brexit Killed Winston Churchill’s Ghost

How special is the Special Relationship? The idea that the U.K. and the U.S. share a unique bond among nations makes for excellent metaphors — as colonial mother and revolutionary child; of classical Greece and the Roman Empire; of two nations divided by a common language. But has it ever really meant anything?

The answer is a qualified yes. And while President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously played up the idea to their geopolitical advantages, theirs was mostly an alliance of convenience. If the relationship was ever special, it was really just between two men: President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Now in those roles, we have Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. (Confirming, perhaps, the maxim than every nation gets the government it deserves.)  To make sense of things, I sought out one of my favorite polymaths, Ian Buruma. Buruma, a professor of human rights and journalism at Bard College, has written many books, especially about Asia. His latest is, “The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, from Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit.” Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation:

Tobin Harshaw: Ian, since I assume that most of the interviews you’ll be doing for the book will be centered on the Trump-Johnson stuff, I’d like to concentrate on earlier eras.

Ian Buruma: To my surprise, nobody has asked me about Trump and Boris. They all go on as though it’s a book about Winston Churchill. The whole point of writing the book was really, in a historical way, to explain why we are where we are.

TH: In your introduction, you describe “the erosion of an idea, the AngloAmerican myth I grew up with.” I don’t think many Americans are going to know what that myth was. Can you describe what you mean, and what it was like when you were in your formative years? And how does your being only half British, the other half Dutch, affect your view?

IB: I was born six years after World War II, in the Netherlands. And I grew up in the shadow of the war. The country had been occupied by the Nazis, and the liberators, apart from some very brave Poles, were American, British and Canadian. And so the prestige of the English-speaking world was extremely high. It represented freedom and openness and so on internationally.

TH: You quote from Churchill’s famous 1946 speech in Fulton, Missouri, where he popularized the term “Iron Curtain.” But you quote a section I was unfamiliar with, about the “fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples.”

IB: The idea of a kinship of the Anglo-Saxon people.

TH: I remember in 2003, when the U.K. was the only ally backing the U.S. invasion of Iraq, there was a lot of talk, from Andrew Sullivan and others, about an “Anglosphere.” And it has some tangible facets, the Five Eyes spy program, for example. Now, with Brexit and with Trump having so frayed America’s global alliances, do you see a stronger move towards a consolidation of the English-speaking world?

IB: No, because in the first place, the U.S. never was, of course, Anglo-Saxon, strictly speaking — even though more people in the past would have identified with roots in the British Isles and Ireland. I don’t think most Americans are particularly interested in a special alliance with Britain. I think it’s now become a sentiment that only really exists amongst a particular kind of Tory in Britain. That said, many people in England probably feel closer to the U.S. than they do to Europe, again because of language. 

I think the whole idea of the special relationship of the Anglo-Saxon peoples was a romantic conceit, cooked up by Churchill, in order to get the Americans to join in the war, without which Germany could not have been defeated. I think there is very little of that kind of sentiment left. The war has been over for a long time and Britain’s power has dwindled so much that it’s of low-grade interest to whomever is in power in the U.S.  

TH: I think that another thing that might surprise people is that after the war, Churchill was an advocate of a unified Europe. Although you note that he was “coy” about Britain’s relationship to it. To ask the hokey question: What would Churchill think about Brexit?

IB: I think he would’ve been against it, because he was not only a romantic, he understood power and power relations. He would have realized that it was not in Britain’s interest to turn its back on the European Union. I think he would have understood that inside Europe, Britain could have exerted quite a lot of clout, but not on its own. And if there was one thing that Churchill always worried about, it was the decline of British influence in the world.

Which was why he was an imperialist. He believed that without the empire, Britain’s power would be enormously diminished. But as one of his successors, Harold Macmillan, once said: The only way to exert that influence on the world would be as a part of Europe. Brexit will have the opposite effect.

TH: The alternative idea, which runs through your book, is that to remain relevant, Britain would cling to America’s coattails.

IB: Yes, but I don’t think that was realistic, mainly because I don’t believe there’s a great deal of interest in Washington. The U.S. always wanted Britain to play a leading part in European institutions, as a bridge between Europe and America. Today, the EU is far more important to the U.S. than Britain, simply because of its economic power.

TH: You note that the British historian David Reynolds said that the special relationship never really recovered from the blow of Roosevelt’s death. Do you agree with that?

IB: Well, I’m not sure it was just Roosevelt’s death. The relationship between Roosevelt and Churchill was forged out of the necessity of fighting a war. Once the war was over, the necessity grew less and less relevant.

What is interesting is that the special relationship has really thrived in times of war. Sometimes the two sides are in conflict, as in the Suez crisis. The Iraq war may have been the last time that a president and a prime minister indulged in this World War II idea of the Anglo-Saxon nations standing together, to fight against a dictator. Both George W. Bush and Tony Blair were deeply influenced, despite having only a superficial knowledge of history, by the ghost of Churchill. They wanted to be heroic, in the Churchillian mode, and not like Neville Chamberlain, the appeaser. That’s the other side of what I call the Churchill Complex.

Too many presidents, in particular, have wanted to mimic Churchill, the great wartime leader. Which has gotten them into foolish wars. But the other ghost that has haunted both sides of the Atlantic is that of Chamberlain in Munich in 1938.That was true in Suez, it was true in Korea, it was true in Vietnam, it was true in Iraq, both wars in the Gulf in fact — Chamberlain and Munich keep on being mentioned: “We can’t repeat Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler.”

TH: There has been a widespread view that Blair was misled, or that he was Bush’s lapdog. Did that really damage the British view of the relationship with America?

IB: Yes. However, I don’t think it’s fair to call him a lapdog or say that he was duped. I think he joined the U.S. in this war with his eyes open. He was an absolute believer himself. He shared with Bush a messianic sense of mission. And Blair, being so zealous in his support of the war in Iraq, split the Labour Party. Labour was taken over by the radical left for a time, as a result. Which is why we have Boris Johnson in power now.  

TH: Before we get to Boris, most people would look at the high point of the special relationship to be the Thatcher-Reagan combination. But as you made clear, they had serious disagreements — over supporting solidarity in Poland; Reagan was not enthusiastic about the Falklands war; ditto Thatcher and the U.S. invasion of Grenada. Thatcher really thought that Reagan might endanger Britain in the nuclear nonproliferation negotiations with the Soviet Union. Then she and George H.W. Bush disagreed over German reunification. It leads one to wonder whether this high point in the special relationship is kind of a myth.

IB: I think the high point was often rhetorical, and to do with attitude as much as anything else. Of course, Reagan and Thatcher saw eye to eye on free trade and Hayekian economics; both of them were ideological believers in that.

They also shared a feeling that both the U.S. and Britain were in a state of decline, and wanted to restore what they saw as greatness. They saw this in terms of standing up against tyranny in the way that Churchill and Roosevelt had. Except in their case, it was communism in the Soviet Union.

But Margaret Thatcher was a complicated figure, because she was a provincial English nationalist who had sentimental views about the English-speaking people. She didn’t much like the Europeans, but she was also a very practical politician. And she did realize where British interests lay, which was why she was actually quite a supporter of the European Union, despite her rhetoric.

Thatcher certainly saw Churchill as a model. A child during the war, she grew up worshiping him as the bulldog image of a heroic Britain she wanted to emulate and revive. So she was very conscious of being Churchillian. I think that the Americans in the Reagan administration admired that in her, because the cult of Churchill was always stronger in the U.S. than it was in Britain.  

TH: Let’s move on to the present day. As you know, Trump famously and incoherently tweeted of Johnson, “They call him Britain Trump.” Is he?

IB: Well, yes, and no. He is a right-wing populist and he’s not very good at upholding international institutions and that kind of thing. So there are some similarities between the two. I think they came to power for reasons that are not unique to Britain and the U.S. They’re exploiting the feelings of a large number of people, often in provincial and rural areas who feel left behind and neglected and resentful of the political elite. And so in that sense, they have a lot in common.

The problem with both leaders is that it’s very difficult to know what they actually stand for. On the eve of the Brexit vote, Boris Johnson wrote two different articles for a newspaper, one pro-Brexit, and the other anti-Brexit, which never ran. So he’s an opportunist and a showman. And so is Trump. And they recognize that in one another. But it’s difficult to find substantial ideological principles that they have in common.

TH: At the end of the book, you say that the Anglo-American world you believed in, possibly naively, has been severely damaged. Do you think that can be healed? And what action would it take, let’s say by a Trump successor, to do so?

IB: Well, I think some of it can be healed — if there were to be a new New Deal in the U.S., and political institutions were overhauled, then we’d be in a better place than we are today. Ditto in Britain. But if, by healing, you mean that it would go back to the kind of prestige that the alliance had in the 1950s and 1960s. No, it won’t go back to that.

In part because times have changed. There is the rise of China. Memories of the war have faded. I think that if the ideals of the alliance and the Atlantic Charter drawn up by Churchill and Roosevelt are being defended anywhere, it’s more in Germany than it is in the English-speaking countries.  

TH: So what about the rifts that Trump has made with continental Europe?

IB: It may be that Trump was the necessary catalyst for the Europeans to start thinking more seriously about a world in which they would not be so completely dependent on the U.S. for their security.

TH: Several times in the book, you repeat the quote from the U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson that “Great Britain has lost an empire but not yet found a role.” Do you think Britain has found a role or not?

IB: No. In my view, and the view of many prime ministers, the role they should have played was as a leading nation in the European Union, shaping the future of Europe. Ironically, at the time of Brexit, they were probably closer to that than in any other time. They managed in many ways to shape the EU according to what they saw as British interests. And just then, they decided to break away. I think whatever role the British will play in future, it will be a much more provincial and limited one than they could’ve had.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tobin Harshaw is an editor and writer on national security and military affairs for Bloomberg Opinion. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper’s letters editor.

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