What is special about the US-UK “special relationship”?

British Industry on US exchanges

What is special about the US-UK “special relationship”?

British emotions regarding America have been colored by the WWII effort

From the declaration of war after the Polish invasion by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in September 1939 until the US commitment to war following the December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Great Britain bore alone the brunt of the war and the human sacrifices, after the invasion of Western Europe by the German armies (May 1940)

Talking, charming, seducing, pushing and dragging the US into war, Winston Churchill went all out to sentimentalize the relationship between the two countries, the English Premier unwittingly rooting nostalgia of Britain’s grandeur and fortitude in times of desperation deeply in the national psyche and in the relationship with America

The notably unsentimental Americans partook in the moral dimension of the war for a time…

Sharing the English language and also a philosophy of freedom envisioning liberty in broadly similar strokes, Great Britain went on to project a naturally trusting relation with the new world super-power rising from the ashes of war

The British outlook was moral as much it was strategic

The American outlook was strategic as much as it was moral

At least initially

But as the UK lost heft with the disintegration of its colonial Empire, and the Cold War commanding the attention of the US, strategic considerations were bound to prevail in American policy

And Great Britain was left clinging to the emotional bond, all the more so because the strategic relevance of Great Britain on the world stage was impaired beyond recall in 1956, as the US called off a forlorn attempt by an Anglo-French force to regain control over the Suez Canal…

Greta Garbo
Greta Garbo

In our view, it is a somewhat sad paradox that during the 1950’s and 1960’s, US foreign policy kept the ‘special relationship’ on life support for strategic reasons, where Great Britain saw reassurance of its moral bond with America

In the heat of the Cold War, stability of Western Europe mattered and European integration was not yet viewed as a potentially competing influence on the world stage. From 1957 on, confronting the strong hold of the USSR on Eastern Europe, American policy was going to both support a closer union of European States and resist protectionist – ‘dirigiste’ –inclined policies from Gaullist France

Great Britain, embedded in the European Community, would be an anchor and an anchor is not clutching illusionary straws of past grandeur…

This is how the December 1962 address to West Point cadets of Dean Acheson, US Secretary of State in the Truman Administration (1949-1953) and influential – if unofficial – advisor under the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies, should probably be read

Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role—that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States, a role based on being the head of a ‘Commonwealth’ which has no political structure, or unity, or strength and enjoys a fragile and precarious economic relationship by means of the sterling area and preferences in the British market—this role is about played out

The much quoted first line troubled the MacMillan government greatly at the time, much to Mr. Acheson’s surprise, because the American argument was precisely about a fresh British role, as a leading liberal economic power in Europe and of Europe – not apart from Europe

Though accepting the premise of shared economic and security interests with Europe, and ultimately entering the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, Great Britain somehow felt short-changed under the illusion that its valuable ‘special relationship’ with America was becoming less ‘special’

In truth, though colored by some affectionate shared memories, American strategic considerations had become paramount, painting a reality those beholden to the glorious past of the Commonwealth have attempted to ignore

So much so that, even today, in an age of globalization and great emerging world powers, British politicians retell the story, the far-flung influence – India, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong (well, no, Hong Kong maybe not, China is ‘parfum-du-jour’) – British trade welcomed the world over and, to cap it all, the enduring ‘special relationship’…

Entertaining a myth, possibly failing to read the strategic implications of pandering to insecure voters, the political supporters of a departure from the European Union are unwitting pawns in a new Great Game

Owls long-eared  chicks_Vygonoshchi_Belarus
Owls long-eared chicks_Vygonoshchi_Belarus
  • Russia has never come to terms with a European entity, stretching its influence beyond a Customs Union and the loss of its Eastern buffer zone has considerably aggravated its sense of insecurity – in this respect, the failure of the EU to support a neutral Ukraine is demonstrably a case of naïve overreach
  • Ambivalence of the US regarding the EU has tainted the relationship off and on, and should not be tied to the current Trump Administration alone. A reliable, and appreciated, partner in extending its influence towards the Russian borders, the EU has grown into a powerful agent on international trade, negotiating on an equal footing with the US. A less unified Europe, facilitating direct relations with countries downsized and brought to heel, may well be a preferred option, with the Russian military menace receding beyond the horizon
  • This ambivalence is probably, though less clearly stated, shared by China positioning itself as co-manager of a World G-2. Welded into a single entity by ruthless warfare (from the Warring States Period to the Qin wars of conquest, ending in 221-BC), not so different from the bloody battles of the American Civil War, China will be forever wary of possible challenges to nation-states

For the EU, only a show of strength reflecting unity of purpose might reshuffle the cards

For Britain, and for the EU, it might soon be too late