Britain’s decision not to stand with the United States, its closest ally, in possible military action to punish the Syrian regime for a deadly chemical weapons attack marks a watershed moment that leaves the “special relationship” in search of meaning and Britain in search of its role in the world.

The trans-Atlantic alliance has been a central pillar of the security of the postwar world. The core of it was the British-American bond, developed after a depleted Britain passed the baton of global leadership to Washington in 1945. Differences soon emerged, not least over Suez in 1956, but this was a relationship built on the notion that its importance overrode inevitable frictions, especially in matters of war and peace.

When Britain opts for the sidelines with Germany, leaving an American president to look to France and Turkey for support in holding Bashar Al Assad accountable for breaking the world’s taboo on chemical weapons, there is little or nothing special left. Rather than standing shoulder-to-shoulder with its ally, Britain has turned its back.

It has been a very long time since a British prime minister lost a war-and-peace vote in Parliament, as David Cameron did on Syria in a stinging personal defeat. He paid the price for the “dodgy dossier,” “Bush’s poodle” and all the other damning epithets that came to accompany Tony Blair’s support a decade ago of the war America fought in Iraq on false pretenses. Something broke then in the US-British bond. It is now clear that Barack Obama, for all the hopes vested in him, has failed to rebuild it.

“The real reason the vote was lost was not so much doubt about strategy as the toxic nature of association with the United States, the idea of being dragged along again like a poodle in a US-led military operation,” said Jonathan Eyal of the Royal United Services Institute. “For Britain’s self-defined status in the world the vote was catastrophic. It has fatally hit the special relationship.”

As Cameron acknowledged, the vote by 285 votes to 272, with 30 defections from his own Tory party, contained an irrefutable message: “It is clear to me that the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action.”

That is right: The British, like other Europeans, are weary of war, and more mistrusting than before of the United States of Guantànamo, Abu Ghraib, post-9/11 bellicosity, mass surveillance and the banking crisis. A US hangover permeated the House of Commons. So did the memory of the more than 600 British dead in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The emblematic figure of this fiasco was Ed Miliband, the opposition Labour Party leader. If his older brother David, a firm friend of America who was defeated by Ed for the party leadership, had been leading Labour at this moment, the outcome might well have been different. But Ed Miliband, 43, with no particular sentiment toward the United States, and little feeling for the 20th-century accomplishments of Nato and the trans-Atlantic alliance, is representative of his generation. (Equally, Obama has no particular sentiments toward Britain.)

After the vote, Miliband articulated his vision of a new cherry-picking relationship with Washington: “There’s a lesson for Britain, though, which is that we must lead in the right way for Britain from our national interest and indeed our global interest. Now sometimes that will mean agreeing with what America is doing and the way it’s going about things and sometimes it will mean doing things in a different way.”

That leaves Britain picking cherries nowhere in particular. The United States has always represented the alternative to the European Union for an island nation unsure about European integration. Now, at the very moment when Britain is moving toward a referendum on EU membership and hostility to Brussels is at an all-time high, London has snubbed Washington in its hour of need.

It was a very European vote, in its anti-war sentiment, and it stands as a monument to British confusion about its identity. As George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, said, it was a moment of “national soul searching about our role in the world.”

I do not expect any quick answers to that search. Britain is an angry state, and Europe or the United States can at different moments become the object of that ill-defined anger against the “establishment” or “the powerful.” The world is also in transition; wherever it ends up, the trans-Atlantic relationship is going to count less because power will lie elsewhere.

Britain and the United States will continue to matter a great deal to each other. But for anyone who believes as I do in the ultimate beneficence of Pax Americana, in the values of the trans-Atlantic world and in the critical importance of American credibility on the red lines it draws for global security and against the horrors of gassing, the British vote represents a bleak turning point.

Courtesy Khaleej Times.