Nevermind the Bullocks—The UK-U.S. Special Relationship is Here to Stay





Alanna O’Malley is a PhD researcher at European University Institute, Florence Italy.

In 1979, Henry Kissinger that the Anglo-American special relationship wasan extraordinary relationship because it rested on no legal claim; it was formalized by no legal document; it was carried forward by succeeding British governments as if no alternative were conceivable.  Britain’s influence was great precisely because it never insisted on it; the ‘special relationship’ demonstrated the valuable of intangibles.”  Not only have successive British governments championed the close and intimate connection with the United States, but the “special relationship” provides a means by which Britain can bolster perceptions of her international prestige, belying what may be termed her status anxiety, through intense and fruitful cooperation with the U.S. in key areas such as nuclear, defense and intelligence sharing. For their part, the State Department has, in Britain, a solid and dependable ally with whom there is a shared language, diplomatic culture, history and tradition. However, what may have begun as an alliance of equality during WWII, has now become very much a partnership of polarity in terms of relative power as the disparities in economic, military and international prowess have deepened the divide between the two nations.  Yet the rhetoric and mysticism of a ‘special relationship’ said to exist between the two nations prevails.

The evolution of the special relationship has invariably been the gradual tilting of the scales between the gradually declining power (Britain) and the expanding hegemonic, the United States.  Indeed, the intimacy between the President of the United States and the British Prime Minister has no better example than when, on a visit to the White House, then President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt walked into the room while Prime Minister Winston Churchill was emerging from the bath.  Characteristically, Churchill is said to have remarked, “You see, the Prime Minister of Great Britain has nothing to hide from the President of the United States.” This sense of amity and affection was continued in the next generation of leaders as President Eisenhower and Prime Minister Macmillan formed a close friendship while working at the coalface during the Second World War.  While they had already forged a warn alliance, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was keen that Eisenhower preserve the special nature of the Anglo-American relationship and in a sense, insulate it from America’s other international relationships.  The struggle with decolonization across the globe and Cold War tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union contributed to the emphasis placed by both British and American officials to reinvigorate their “special” alliance.

But nonetheless, relations between Britain and the U.S. hit an all-time low following the disastrous Suez crisis of 1956, which exposed the reality of Britain’s waning influence. Provoked by Egyptian president Gamel Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, Britain, France, and Israel attacked.  The spectacular failure of this sabotage effort, and crucially, the lack of American support for this initiative, left Britain exposed and embarrassed on the world stage; no longer was she an international power who could take unilateral or bilateral action according to the whims of her foreign policy.  The most significant impact was upon her plans for decolonization, which were now hastily accelerated as Britain sought to disentangle herself from the trickier parts of the empire in order to avoid further controversies.

However, such a sharp slap to the face of the British self-image ultimately served to strengthen the “special” relationship, as this brush with realpolitik resulted in a rejuvenation of the idea on both sides and efforts to overcome this apparent breach of trust were employed with renewed vigor.  Britain provided a strong and stable ally for the United States throughout the darkest days of the Cold War, and, in return, the British were to establish a very fruitful deal in nuclear defense cooperation, signing an agreement in 1958 which agreed to the mutual exchange of classified nuclear data between the two countries. While Britain gained a whole new armory of the most advanced nuclear weapons being created, America increased her leverage over her allies’ defense activity and enhanced her own nuclear research with British expertise, in the process, emphasizing that Britain was the only country to be granted access to such sensitive information.  

While successive conflicts in international affairs were set to challenge the relationship—the Congo crisis of 1960-1964, the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 and the Vietnam War—the Anglo-American alliance held firm through changes of administration and governments, even in the face of Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s refusal to send British troops to Vietnam.  One of the high points of Cold War synergy was the relationship fostered between Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Ronald Reagan.  The closeness between these two leaders not only echoed the early days of the gentleman’s club ambience between Roosevelt and Churchill, but simultaneously played into the many gender analogies of the relationship with Britain in the role of the woman and America the man.  Moreover however, this particular example of a power couple was to prove very important to Britain in the resolution of the Falklands War in 1982.

The Argentinean invasion of the islands on April 2, 1982, was an attack on one of Britain’s dependent territories and prompted a military response.  During the two-month-long conflict, the United Stated buttressed the British naval strikes against the Argentineans, both politically and logistically, and supplied aid and equipment alongside statements of support.  While the pendulum of power had now very much settled in Washington, the extent to which Britain was able to influence her far more powerful ally had not waned as much as many critics of the relationship had argued.  

Even the prickly issue of Northern Ireland, nominally a constituent country of the United Kingdom, did not produce a crisis in the relationship.  Walking the tightrope of Northern Ireland, during which British history in the province and the weight of the Unionist lobby in Belfast and London was carefully balanced against the powerful pro-Catholic Irish American pressure groups in the United States, Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bill Clinton were not only instrumental in bringing peace to the region, but also forged a new approach to international crises.  From the ashes of years of internment, hunger strikes, bombings and intransigence between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland rose the phoenix of Third Way politics and the notion of intervention on humanitarian grounds, which was put to its first test with the NATO bombing of Kosovo in 1999.

While the shared center-left ideology of the Third Way initiative would ultimately loose its appeal in the heady world of international politics, the attempt by the two countries to construct a common basis for approaches to foreign policy was a natural extension of their years of joint policy planning.  The consistency and intimacy of the relationship between various sets of leaders and governments since WWII was bound to contribute to an effort to construct a new joint worldview, based on the values of humanitarianism and international responsibility, borne out of the hegemonic, global experiences of two partners in empire.

While the special relationship exists as much between the staffs of Foggy Bottom and Whitehall as it does between the leaders of each country, there is no doubt a fundamental advantage to having a harmonious partnership at the top level.  The relationship between President Obama and his counterparts at 10 Downing has not been good, especially under Gordon Brown.  Recently released Wikileaks cables between Washington and London reveal a poor impression of the former prime minister on behalf of the Americans, reflecting little faith in the fate of Brown’s government.  Even worse, they refer to the White House apparently snubbing the prime minister during his visit to Washington in September 2009.  However, it remains to be seen whether the Sword of Damocles indeed hangs over the threads between London and Washington.  After all, while Obama may have snubbed Brown, he did trade beers with David Cameron; Cameron-esque austerity measures are now being debating in the U.S., and Cameron even tapped the former head of the LAPD to advise Scotland Yard in the aftermath of the nationwide riots this last month.

There is no doubt that a close and extraordinary diplomatic and cultural alliance exists between the two countries.. This is not limited to the shared language, traditions and history of the two nations (even Obama is a product of this legacy), which are intimately bound up with each other, but also something more fabled about their intercourse.  The very notion of preserving the relationship against all odds also kept the alliance in one piece.  The dynamic of the special relationship has developed to the point where the realist and mythical dimensions and perceptions of its existence have fused into a diplomatic touchstone with which these two countries conduct their world affairs. Regardless of whether it is Britain playing Greece to America’s Rome, or the UK cast in the role of the United States’ poodle, the special relationship isn’t going anywhere.  



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