Beyond Friendship - The Future of Anglo-American Relations, Chapter One: How Special a Relationship?

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Beyond Friendship - The Future of Anglo-American Relations, Chapter One: How Special a Relationship?

May 24, 2006 11 min read
Robin Harris
Dr. Robin Harris is Senior Visiting Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. His...

Grounds for Confidence

The most distinguished and enthusiastic current proponent of the Special Relationship between the United States and Britain is undoubtedly former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. This, of course, is enough to turn some fastidious souls off the whole idea; but her views are important, not least because she achieved, by the common consent of supporters and critics alike, a uniquely close and effective bond with her opposite number in the White House, Ronald Reagan. Exactly why this political and personal friendship worked so well, and how it worked, will be examined separately,[1] but the power of its impact is indisputable.

Moreover, Lady Thatcher has also given her reflections in some detail upon why the Relationship mattered in her day and will continue to matter. She stresses the commonality of outlook of the two countries which is rooted in their history—and not just modern history, but the collective experience which preceded the American Revolution and political separation. In short, the two nations share common values—and not any old values. These particular values are quite distinctive and explain both the Anglo–Saxon political, social, and economic model’s success and its creative applicability to the modern world. They also now make America supremely well-equipped for world leadership.

Because America’s commitment to liberty is so bound up with the American nation’s conception of its very identity, American power poses no threat to the liberty of other nations. For this reason, among others related to capacity, stability, and security, Lady Thatcher therefore welcomes the global pre-eminence of the American superpower. Any worries she has about America’s actions are likely to stem either from a feeling that the U.S. Administration may at any particular time have misread the situation or from a deeper anxiety that the United States may be surrendering excessive influence to other powers which should not be entrusted with it. Without believing in an enforceable Pax Americana, she passionately believes that without Potestas Americana, there will be no Pax worth its salt.

Not even all Americans would agree with this analysis. Many American liberals seem to feel, rather as successive Federal Chancellors of (West) Germany have felt, that their own country’s power is already so great that it needs to be constrained—in the American instance, by the United Nations; in Germany’s, by a federal Europe. Among American conservatives, there are also divisions about how widespread and how permanent America’s international responsibilities should be. But whatever the nuances and language, the Thatcher view is certainly very close to that which currently prevails in Washington regarding the exertion of American power. It also constitutes the most coherent and optimistic view of America’s leadership to be found on the British side of the Atlantic.[2]

Coherence and optimism are not, indeed, the obvious qualities that spring to mind when one considers the attitudes of most of the British foreign policy establishment. This is reflected in its representatives’ views of the Anglo–American relationship.

British Doubts

In his rather misleadingly entitled memoirs, DC Confidential, Britain’s most recent ambassador to the United States, Sir Christopher Meyer, recalls some instructions which he gave on arrival in Washington:

I would not allow the phrase “special relationship” inside the embassy. I was worried that my staff would approach their work with a set of delusions: that Britain’s relations with the US were different in kind from those with any other country; that the Americans would therefore grant us special benefits, unavailable to other nations; and that as a result, developing a relationship with the US of advantage to Britain would require less effort than with other governments….

A phrase like this…merits use only to describe those very few relationships where a foreign government has the ability significantly to influence US politics and, through this, the direction of US foreign policy. Only Israel, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia and the Irish Republic have shown this quality consistently over the years.[3]

This observation, as one would expect from a talented graduate of the British Foreign Office school of statecraft, contains a mixture of shrewd insight and perverse wrongheadedness. As the ambassador himself often saw, despite attempts by Number Ten Downing Street to exclude him from some aspects of it, the Special Relationship was very close indeed during all of his time in Washington—even too close, some critics would argue. But, that said, his qualifications have some force. Naturally, British diplomats would be foolish to bank on favors when it comes to advancing British interests in America. Naturally, too, a great power—indeed, a global superpower—like the United States has to maintain a range of international relationships which are in various fashions and degrees special.

One could, in fact, quarrel with Sir Christopher’s preferred list, which lumps together very different international ties. The U.S.–Irish link, for example, is almost entirely sentimental. By contrast, no sentiment at all (indeed, an increasing degree of suspicion) characterizes U.S. ties with Saudi Arabia, whose significance is almost wholly determined by Saudi oil reserves. Taiwan is again in a quite different category. It has not, in fact, in the past managed to lobby particularly effectively; hence the collapse of the old “Two China” policy under Richard Nixon. It now features large in U.S. calculations because it is has a huge, predatory neighbor in the form of the People’s Republic of China, which, as President George W. Bush rightly stated to much diplomatic distress, is America’s “strategic competitor.”

Israel has a particular place apart in the list. American–Israeli relations are truly “special” in something of the sense in which Anglo–American relations are “special.” American commitment to Israel’s survival and security is absolute. One could imagine Washington, in extremis, abandoning any ordinary ally but never withdrawing protection from Tel Aviv. Initially, this too was a matter of sentiment. Today, Israel also serves—and indeed has served ever since the Seven Day War—as an effective American ally of military significance in a region where the U.S. has few friends. In the event of the crisis with Iran reaching the point at which military action is required, Israel may even be called upon to act as an American military surrogate. But Israel is necessarily a regional rather than a global force. It is, in the last resort, too small and too vulnerable to do more than repay something of the commitment which the United States makes to it while, of course, putting its own national interest first.

There are also candidates for “special relationship” status which have at least as much right to inclusion on the list as some of Meyer’s nominees. For example, the alliance with Japan is fundamental to American interests and to stability in Asia. And what of Australia, an increasingly significant regional power, which under Prime MinisterJohn Howard’s leadership openly affirms that the relationship with America is “the most important we have with any single country” and actually sends troops in to prove it?[4] Last (and definitely least), even Mexico was at one time considered ripe for a special relationship status—an illusion which soon melted into the sands of traditional Latino vs. Gringo hostility.

American Doubts

Lying behind the reluctance of Britain’s diplomats and politicians to use the term “special relationship” is also something less palatable. It is the awareness that a certain strand of American opinion finds the concept empty or even ludicrous. President Bill Clinton, in preparing for his first meeting with his British opposite number, Prime Minister John Major, was reminded to mention the magic phrase. “Oh yes, said Clinton. “How could I forget?” At which he burst out laughing.[5]

Many people, not least in Britain, have subsequently laughed at John Major, and the newly elected President had no reason to feel well-disposed toward him, since Conservative Party officials had become imprudently involved in the failed Bush campaign. The Clinton White House would, in any case, adopt a different tack in relations with Britain once Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1997.Yet the initial mockery reflected more than mere pique, or even Clinton’s trademark cynicism. It reflected continuing doubts which regularly surface as each new Administration seeks to review America’s broader policy options.

American doubts about the Relationship do not, at least in recent times, spring from hostility to Britain as such. Once, with a little American help, the United Kingdom was no longer an imperial power and, once again with American participation, British attempts to pursue an independent policy in the Middle East were destroyed by Suez, there were no more serious grounds for rivalry. The United States held the floor as the undisputed Anglo–Saxon superpower. Britain had been relegated militarily to the second division, with its poor economic performance and its elite’s self-doubts doing the rest. Indeed, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. was more likely to be worried about Britain’s weakness than concerned that she might cause America trouble; and when, in the 1980s, Britain did revive, it was under a British government that was resolutely pro-American.

The doubts, then, have stemmed from something quite different: America’s continuing and understandable desire to re-prioritize its relationships to reflect changing global realities. Hence the talk in the 1990s of the United States looking westward to the Pacific, where the most vibrant economies were to be found. Hence, too, the thinking behind a revived hemispheric policy to unite Latin American countries, starting with Mexico, with the United States in a free trade zone of stability and democracy. Neither of these preoccupations has, in the event, proved particularly fruitful. As for the Pacific, China continues to dominate—and to threaten—East Asia. As for Latin America, U.S. relations with Mexico are uncertain, and there is now hardly a government in South America which is not more or less hostile to American interests.

However, the most important focus for these regular policy reappraisals by the U.S. has, over the decades, been Europe, where some in the State Department hoped and expected that an alternative to Britain as a partner would emerge. This was never, of course, likely to be France, with or without Charles De Gaulle. Germany was always more suitable culturally and temperamentally, but obviously it could not play any such role while divided. However, as soon as the Iron Curtain was torn down, the United States hastened to offer precisely this opportunity to Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who now presided over the richest and most populous country in Europe. President George H. W. Bush thus told the Germans when he visited Mainz at the end of May 1989 that they could become “partners in leadership,” something which not even the Special Relationship implied.

This improbable partnership, in practice, came to nothing, and no one, even in deference to current Chancellor Angela Merkel, is likely to suggest its re-creation. If not Germany, and in the absence of any other suitable European power, the only alternative to Britain on offer was an entirely new megastate—the European Union. But that too has its problems, as will be discussed in the context of current challenges.

The fact that other avenues, particularly other European avenues, have proved disappointing for American foreign policymakers is, however, in itself no proof of the worth of the Special Relationship. A global superpower, the only pole in a unipolar world, the United States is not compelled to enter into enduring relationships with any state. It has to perceive interests that are satisfied by doing so. Nor should those in Britain who urge the Special Relationship’s importance engage in special pleading based upon nostalgia for past comradeship, not least because the original case for the Relationship was based upon harsh reality, not comforting illusion.


It was, of course, Winston Churchill, in his famous 1946 “Sinews of Peace” address in Fulton, Missouri, who gave authoritative formulation to the concept. He spoke of shared democratic values, ones which he urged should be exported globally and which he presciently and controversially saw as threatened by the ambitions of Soviet communism, and he defined these values, as would Margaret Thatcher half a century later, as deriving from a continuous tradition of Anglo–American liberty. So he urged:

We must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, and the English common law find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence.[6]

Churchill assumed that Britain and America, whatever their particular national interests, were also the two nations where liberty was most secure and which could thus, in the final analysis, be best guaranteed to fight to defend it. History at this point touched directly upon strategies for security, and he made it clear that the latter were his central concern—“the crux,” as he put it, of his message:

Neither the prevention of war, nor the continuous rise of world organisation [i.e., the United Nations] will be gained without what I have called the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples. This means a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States. This is no time for generalities, and I will venture to be precise. Fraternal association requires not only the growing friendship and mutual understanding between our two vast but kindred systems of society, but the continuance of the intimate relationship between our military advisers, leading to common study of potential dangers, the similarity of weapons and manuals of instructions, and to the interchange of officers and cadets at technical colleges. It should carry with it the continuance of the present facilities for mutual security by the joint use of all Naval and Air Force bases in the possession of either country all over the world….[7]

One should note en passant that Churchill’s conception of such a Special Relationship had no obvious precedents. No such thing, for example, was envisaged by Woodrow Wilson and Lloyd George. But the passage is also of significance for two very contemporary reasons.

First, Churchill makes clear that the Anglo–U.S. “fraternal association,” which is intended to include the rest of the English-speaking world (“Commonwealth and Empire”), was to be a force for global peace and, indeed, serve as a fulcrum for wider international cooperation through the United Nations.

Second, the Special Relationship should not be a matter of “generalities” (as he put it), but rather would be embodied in the closest possible defense cooperation, stretching from the use of bases through weapons procurement and to everyday matters of training.

One should also, however, recall both the context and the aftermath of Fulton. Churchill’s central theme, and the one which drew the most attention and much criticism, was his warning of an “Iron Curtain” which had “descended across the [European] Continent.” The background to his plea for closer military collaboration was, therefore, acute military danger. The plea was in fact rejected, at least for the moment. Most Americans thought it alarmist (though not all policymakers—George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” had, after all, been sent the previous month). British press reaction was also mixed.

Yet Churchill was right. He was sometimes accused in the course of his long career of being a dreamer; but in the matter of the Anglo–American Special Relationship, he was highly practical. This Relationship, as he conceived it, was not at all to be a mere cultural artifact. It was to be a powerful and effective alliance, a continuation of a system tried and tested in war but now focused on a different threat: that from an aggressive and expansionist Soviet Union.


[1Lady Thatcher has given her own account in The Downing Street Years (London: HarperCollins, 1993), pp. 156–171, 244–248, 463–473, and 768–777.

[2]Margaret Thatcher, Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World (London: HarperCollins, 2002), pp. 19–62.

[3]Christopher Meyer, DC Confidential (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2005), pp. 56–57.

[4]See Rupert Darwall, “John Howard’s Australia,” Policy Review, August/September 2005, p. 61.

[5]Raymond Setz, Over Here (London: Phoenix, 1998), p. 322.

[6]Winston Churchill, “Sinews of Peace,” speech delivered at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri, March 5, 1946, at

[7] Ibid.


Robin Harris