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How special is special? The US-UK relationship

August 27th, 2019

Be honest. How many G7 summits do you remember? How many are little more than talking shops with the same old photos of largely the same old characters? Last year’s summit, for instance, was mostly memorable for that photo of a defensive obstinate Trump surrounded by an exasperated Merkel and others. And this year? We have the sight of Trump showing off his latest pet, our very own Prime Minister, laughing a little too keenly  at the President’s bon mots (or possibly at the fact that Trump was able to utter a coherent mot at all). Trump is backing our PM. Hurrah! The special relationship is alive and well.

Oh no! Not that hoary old chestnut. Every time a British PM comes within orbit of a US President this old dependable is wheeled out for another bout of worship.  There is something a little pathetic in the way the British political class utters this incantation, as if merely by saying it the clock could be turned back to a time when British and American leaders drafted charters for how the world should be run, as if they were equals in importance. Clearly, there has been a close military and intelligence alliance since WW2, of immense value to both parties on various occasions, most obviously during WW2 itself. If this was all that is meant, why the need to keep on mentioning it? Time perhaps for a closer look at what this oh-so-special relationship has consisted of over the years.

Churchill and WW2: It was he who first uttered the phrase in a speech in 1946, though his whole behaviour towards Roosevelt since 1940 made it obvious that he felt the Anglo-American alliance was the motor which saved the world from a new Dark Age. And, significantly, it was first said in the Fulton speech where Churchill warned of an Iron Curtain falling across Europe. Even then, there was an element of British self-delusion about how, despite how much they had in common, the US viewed the world very differently to Britain. It was “a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States.” But the US did not have then (or earlier) any interest at all in preserving or helping Britain preserve its Empire. Indeed, it viewed it with some distaste.  If there was to be any Empire at all it would be a US one (à la Monroe doctrine) and in the US image. Not in the image of a romantic Victorian who imagined that having a US mother gave him a special insight or a particular entitlement. This much should, frankly, have been obvious since Woodrow Wilson. The brutal reality was shown by Roosevelt’s somewhat dismissive attitude towards Churchill by the end of the war, most notably at the Yalta and Teheran summits. Perhaps Churchill’s decision not to attend Roosevelt’s funeral in 1945 was a sign that he realised its one-sided nature.

A personal relationship?  Despite this and despite the hard-nosed calculations made by the US when extending credit to a bankrupt Britain at the end of the war, those few years and Churchill’s description of them have had a disproportionate influence on British politicians since. Not just in the assumption that, in Mrs Thatcher’s words in 1982: “The Anglo-American relationship has done more for the defence and future of freedom than any other alliance in the world.” but in the belief that a personal relationship with the US President is critical to Britain’s standing in the world. And yet in the post-war world there have only really been two UK leaders of whom that could properly be said: Thatcher and Blair. (Macmillan might also be included, if only to wonder what the Americans thought of Macmillan’s lofty and somewhat patronising claim that Britain would be Greece to America’s Rome.)

Thatcher’s relationship with Reagan was a factor (though much less important than the spin would have you believe) in the geopolitical changes which occurred while Reagan was President. And the reliance on it led Thatcher to underestimate the consequences for Britain and for the US of the changes which the Maggie/Ronnie partnership had unleashed. US focus on Europe was a result of its prolonged civil war in the 20th century and the threat which Soviet Communism posed to the US. Once those two ghosts had been laid to rest with victory in the Cold War, both Britain and Europe would be less important to the US than before.

As for Blair: well his relationship with Clinton and then Bush was certainly close but its consequences for Britain have been less happy. The neediness shown by others (Brown, May, Cameron) has on occasion been embarrassing. Only wily old Wilson managed to avoid entangling Britain in the US’s ill-fated Vietnam venture, one originally embarked on because the US’s oldest ally, France, persuaded the US that the Cold War was no time to be telling France that the time for its Empire had passed (as Ken Burn’s magisterial documentary makes clear). (The French then ignored their colossal mishandling of their colony and grandly proceeded to lecture the US about its mishandling of the war. It has not done the US-France relationship much harm.)

A mutual relationship?  How much help has the US really provided Britain? The Suez adventure was undermined by the withdrawal of US financial support, about as brutal a power play as one could imagine. There was no forgiveness of British war debts to the US, not even when British blood was being shed in America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. US help to Britain in the Falklands was was not a foregone conclusion. There were plenty of voices arguing against or for a more conciliatory approach than Thatcher’s wish for total victory. The US invaded a British territory – Grenada – in 1983 with barely so much as a “please” beforehand. What did Britain’s help to the US in Iraq and Afghanistan do for Britain? When the IRA were bombing Northern Ireland and mainland Britain, Gerry Adams got the oxygen of publicity with his meetings with US Congressmen. Meanwhile the US extradited to its closest ally precisely zero alleged terrorists. Contrast this with the US determination to get an Extradition Treaty which enabled it to extradite British citizens to the US in controversial circumstances and to a criminal justice and penal system considerably more brutal than anything which would be tolerated here, even under the current Home Secretary.

None of this is exceptional. Powerful countries will use their power to extract the maximum benefit they can, even from their allies. Sentimentality is good for speeches but a poor guide to how countries will behave behind closed doors. The US has new interests – China and Asia, above all. It has an increasingly large Spanish-speaking population. It currently has a President with scant regard for existing international organisations. That President will be gone in a maximum of 5 years, maybe sooner, one reason why it would be wise to remember that a friendship with one leader is not the same as an enduring relationship with a country.  It would be foolish to assume that after Trump the US will revert to its previous geopolitical stance, even if the language may be politer.

In Brian Moore’s “The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne”, Judith, a lonely alcoholic spinster visits a local family, the O’Neills, regularly, fondly imagining that they welcome her visits. They don’t. They have become a habit, one they endure for old times’ sake. She has some money put by. Perhaps they will benefit when she dies. The story does not end well. Poor Judith deluded herself that she was loved.

Sometimes the US seems to indulge Britain in the way the O’Neills indulged Judith. We so want to be America’s bestest friend; we so want that FTA; we so want to sell those pork pies and British sparkling wine; we don’t mention one of our biggest sectors – finance – which could do with better access to the US market; we so want to prove to the world, to ourselves, that there will be wonderful trade deals outside the EU; we are so grateful when the US omits to mention agriculture and the NHS when the UK press are paying attention. But when US trade negotiators have made it clear that both will be on the table during negotiations, when it is the US’s National Security Advisor who talks about trade, what do we think the US will really demand and get from Britain? The US can smell desperation, much as stale spirits can be smelt on an alcoholic’s breath.

By all means let’s treat the US as an important friendly ally. But isn’t it about time that we stopped deluding ourselves about our importance? Isn’t it about time we stopped assuming that the US will do us any favours that are not also in their own interests? Isn’t it about time for Britain to be realistic about its place in the world? Surely, only on this basis will it have a chance of being successful in the choice it is about to make?

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