The Continuing Need for a Special Relationship with the United Kingdom

The Continuing Need for a Special Relationship with the United Kingdom

Daniel E. Ward

In today’s world of globalization, rapid dissemination of information, non-state actors who wield the same, if not greater power than sovereign states, and threats such as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, no nation can stand alone and expect to be secure in its own national interests. Current developments within Syria and in the battle against ISIS, coupled with a resurgent and aggressive Russia and simmering tension with China, all serve to forewarn the US of a constant need for stable, reliable, and strong partners. Only through coordination and collaboration with trusted, close-knit allies, can the United States expect to maintain and develop its own national security. Instead of an over reliance on “the flavor of the day” nations, the US should invest more heavily in its one stalwart ally of the last 150 years, to buttress security in Europe and the Middle East, while allowing more US focus, with ever decreasing resources, towards the Pacific and Latin America. During the last century the cooperation between the US and United Kingdom has been based on both personal and professional relationships, between the heads of state and military personnel respectively. The close alliances in World War I, World War II, the Cold War, the Gulf War, and the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) illustrate the inherent bond between the US and UK and the need for the US to maintain this cohesive link with our European counterpart.

Historical Context

The history between the US and UK obviously started out with contentious events; the Revolutionary War and the subsequent War of 1812, to assert and solidify independence from England. The transformation from colonial holdings to a fledgling nation breaking free of an 18th century superpower initially set the countries at odds with one another; however both still shared intrinsic similarities. As discussed by Rebekah Brown, both US and British interests began to align with the Monroe Doctrine, the US’ statement in 1823 of disallowing European involvement in North and South America, which coincided with Britain’s goal of preventing rivals from expanding into those same areas. Mutual support developed into the late 1800s and the relationship was furthered developed as the US and UK worked together against common enemies in both World War I and World War II, the later serving to become the most notable example of the relationship between both countries, broadened by President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill [1]. The shared political views of the US and UK, together with the common cause in both World Wars, tied them together more closely than other allied nations after the end of World War II, as both strived to counterbalance communism. This led to tandem military and diplomatic relations which were often geared toward a common objective [2]. The “special relationship”, first expressed by Winston Churchill in a 1946 speech, referring to the unique common causes between the United States and the United Kingdom [3], would come to serve as a cornerstone for national security policies of both nations, and continues to be a foundation for the US and UK as we move ahead on the 21st century.

Evaluation of US-UK Relationship

Relations between the US and UK have not always been harmonious. There have been notable historical areas of discord, such as the lack of US support for Britain’s joint military action with France and Israel against Egypt in 1956; or the need for the UK to be completely reliant on US delivery systems for its nuclear weapons program [4]. The UK’s economic position affects the US, and is not always in line with US interests. As the UK works towards, in some circles, autonomy from a shared base with the European Union, the resulting economic downtrend, means “….huge problems with its position in Europe…that bears on the US, because the US has in Britain something of a proxy for its own interests in the broader European Union…” [5]. Recent events also illustrate certain areas of potential disagreement. Geographically, the US is a Pacific power, and as China rises in power both economically and militarily, the US will be prepared to deal with regional stability issues through close coordination with Pacific allies [6]. This brings into question the value placed on the current US and UK relationship. “One of the great illusions in the contemporary British concept of the special relationship is that there remains across the Atlantic a special and sentimental attachment to Britain, beyond shared interests and welcoming rhetoric” and a “further widespread illusion in London is that the tie with Britain is America’s only special relationship, or even its most important one.” [7]. It is true the US shares with other countries, such as Israel and South Korea, a form of interchange not exercised with the majority of other nations. However, the UK understands that economies in Asia and Latin America are on the rise, and this will shift some US focus away from Europe, especially as China becomes a global power. This means the relationship between the US and UK needs to evolve, along with NATO and the EU, to ensure stability across the world [8].

There is an inherent level of cooperation between the US and UK in a wide array of matters, such as military planning and operations, economic support, and intelligence gathering that goes beyond the level of detail either nation shares with other partners. The US has never had success under an isolationist policy, and must have close engagement in regards to global security with allies such as the United Kingdom [9]. In fact, “the foundation of United States, regional, and global security will remain America’s relations with our allies...” and the “…relationships our Armed Forces have developed with foreign militaries area critical component of our global engagement and support our collective security” [10]. The 2015 National Security Strategy lays out primary threats such as terrorism, preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, global health security, cyber security, and national defense as the lynchpins to US national security, while emphasizing defense of democracy and human rights on a global scale as a foundation for addressing these issues; at the same time the strategy notes the international order and globalization make it practically impossible to achieve these aims without allied cooperation [11]. Recent aggression by Russia in Ukraine makes it evident that the security of Europe remains under potential threat [12]. To counter such European threats, the US recognizes NATO as “the world’s preeminent multilateral alliance, reinforced by the historic close ties we have with the United Kingdom…” [13]. In President Obama’s historic 2011 address to British Parliament, he stated in part, “I come here today to reaffirm one of the oldest and strongest alliances the world has ever known” [14]. He went on to note there is a strong partnership based on values and beliefs that unite the US and UK, declaring “…that’s why there are few nations that stand firmer, speak louder, and fight harder to defend democratic values around the world than the United States and the United Kingdom” [15].

The UK national strategy focuses specific threats and a need to defend the rule of law, democracy, and human rights as part of its national interests. This “requires us to project power and to use our unique network of alliances and relationships – primarily with the United States of America…” [16]. In the 2014 annual update to the UK national security strategy, Prime Minister Cameron stated, “…the past year has seen the UK and the United States work together on global challenges including Syria, Middle East Peace Process, Iraq, Iran, Ebola, Ukraine, and the emerging threat of ISIL; and on the successful NATO Summit in Wales” noting “our collaboration in critical areas underpins the defense and security relationship, including over intelligence, organized crime, nuclear, cyber, and counter-terrorism” [17]. From a UK perspective, the foundation of modern cooperation between the US and UK is defense, which takes the form of a compromise; the UK must maintain military and intelligence readiness to gain access to joint policy with the US, while the UK’s global advantage may be balanced with constraints on policy which do not run concurrent to US policy [18]. Simply stated from the US viewpoint, the “security and prosperity of Europe is a vital interest for the United States” [19].

Appraisal and the Near Future

Over the next three to five years, the US will increasingly need a trusted and steadfast partner to address global and regional issues that the US may not be able to directly meet due to geography, competing priorities, and reduced national security assets. An analysis of the partnership between the US and UK reveals “…the special relationship is generally categorized as a transitory institution defined by the contemporary global balance of power” [20]. This means there will be shifts in priorities, and common goals may not always mesh completely. But this difference also means the US must rely on the UK as a security partner. As focus shifts to Asia and the emergence of China, the US needs a strong partner to safeguard European concerns. NATO will be focused primarily on Europe, while the US is a Pacific power [21]. And the US’ primary counterpart for NATO remains the United Kingdom.

The US must determine not only on when and where to employ national power, but also how and why, or more correctly, to what extent [22]. This is consistent with the outlook of both nations’ leaders. President Obama has noted global threats such as economic security, border control, and terrorism make the US/UK alliance essential for both nations [23]. And UK leadership has stated “our strong defense, security and intelligence relationship with the US is exceptionally close and central to our national interest” [24]. This means as the US focuses towards the Pacific, it can rely on the UK to serve as the bedrock for European security upon which the US is dependent.

The special relationship between the US and UK is based on more than necessity, or shared security goals. It is rooted in shared political principles and shared history and ideals [25]. This makes the relationship a lasting one, which can weather differences and changing priorities, because it is not a short-term marriage of convenience, but a deep seated affinity which serves both nations as a keystone to their individual and joint security. The common interests of the US and UK may face serious challenges as the United States begins to focus more attention to the Pacific, and the United Kingdom is forced to deal with current issues such as the Syrian refugee crisis and a bold, aggressive Russia. However as shown over the shared history of the last century, the UK will remain essential to US security, and the US should strive to maintain a special relationship with our European cousin.

End Notes

[1] Brown, Rebekah. "A History of the Anglo-American Special Relationship."Ashbrook Scholar Program, 2012. http://www.ashbrook.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/ShermanBrown-Printable.pdf. Accessed September 9, 2015.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] The U.S. Allies at Risk in 2013. WSJ Video. Directed by John Bussey. New York: Wall Street Journal Online, 2013. http://live.wsj.com/video/the-us-allies-at-risk-in-2013/72514CF2-96AD-4D70-93C0-995BECD013BC.html#!72514CF2-96AD-4D70-93C0-995BECD013BC. Accessed September 7, 2015.

[6] Obama, Barack. National Security Strategy (2015). Washington DC: White House, 2015.

[7] Wallace, William and Christopher Phillips. "Reassessing the Special Relationship." International Affairs no. 85 (2009): 263-284.

[8] Cameron, David and Nick Clegg. A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The National Security Strategy. London: HM Government, 2010.

[9] Obama, Barack. National Security Strategy (2010). Washington DC: White House, 2010.

[10] Ibid, p. 41.

[11] Obama, Barack. National Security Strategy (2015). Washington DC: White House, 2015.

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid, p. 7.

[14] President Obama Addresses the British Parliament. (2011, May 25). London: White House, 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fp85zRg2cwg. Accessed September 7, 2015.

[15] Ibid

[16] Cameron, David and Nick Clegg. A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The National Security Strategy. London: HM Government, 2010, p. 4.

[17] Cameron, David. 2014 Annual Report on the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defense and Security Review. London: United Kingdom Cabinet Office, 2014, p .44.

[18] Wallace, William and Christopher Phillips. "Reassessing the Special Relationship." International Affairs no. 85 (2009): 263-284.

[19] Keohane, Daniel. "Does NATO Matter for US Defense Policy?" FRIDE Policy Brief no. 129 (2012): 1-5, p. 2.

[20] Brown, Rebekah. "A History of the Anglo-American Special Relationship."Ashbrook Scholar Program, 2012. http://www.ashbrook.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/ShermanBrown-Printable.pdf. Accessed September 9, 2015, p. 2.

[21] Keohane, Daniel. "Does NATO Matter for US Defense Policy?" FRIDE Policy Brief no. 129 (2012): 1-5.

[22] Snow, Donald M. National Security for a New Era. 5th ed. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2014.

[23] President Obama Addresses the British Parliament. (2011, May 25). London: White House, 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fp85zRg2cwg. Accessed September 7, 2015.

[24] Cameron, David and Nick Clegg. A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The National Security Strategy. London: HM Government, 2010, p. 22.

[25] Brown, Rebekah. "A History of the Anglo-American Special Relationship."Ashbrook Scholar Program, 2012. http://www.ashbrook.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/ShermanBrown-Printable.pdf. Accessed September 9, 2015.

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Comments

@ David

That's the sense I get too as a long time watcher of British politics from afar, albeit in a diaspora ("Asian") sort of way rather than anything else.

I'm not sure Americans--who don't always pay attention to the UK in anything other than a pop culture "Downton Abbey" way--are so aware of this frustration with the idea of a Special Relationship.

I'd like to know what our best relationship should be rather than any special relationship.

I'd feel it too if I were British because it prevents fresh thinking from many political classes in your society. And many of the IR scholars predicted after the Cold War, and with the rise of Asia and China (Africa too), that our interests would diverge in security if not in economics.

Stephen Walt has a piece linked on his twitter feed that addresses some of this:

http://www.iss.europa.eu/publications/detail_eugs-opinions/article/eugs-...

American economic and demographic changes, along with a changing external environment, may pull us further apart. Or not, the prediction game is difficult but the trends pulling us apart somewhat have continued for some time.

I've always thought the Acheson stuff about Britain finding a global role was all wrong. Somehow, you have developed an ennui culturally throughout that we exacerbate with our policies of pressuring the British on the EU. I cheered the British astronaut. I'd like us to pay more attention to space exploration and manned exploration at that. All that Hawking stuff....who knows? Maybe we will need an unconventional warfare command when the robots rebel.

Sorry, couldn't help the digression.

For what it's worth, from an outsider that has always sort of watched you from afar with the perspective of an Indian diaspora, but an American first and foremost. I'm too old fashioned a person to understand such complicated identities as a global citizen, it doesn't sit right with me and I suspect it makes a lot of people in the US, UK and Europe a bit uncomfortable too.

An interesting American point of view, so let me offer one from this side of the Atlantic Ocean (in the UK).

The 'Special Relationship' today is based on two key factors: a) a national political judgement that it is in the UK's best interests and b) the close working relationship between our respective military-intelligence-diplomatic partners.

Since the end of the 'Cold War' and after three GWOT wars NO adjustment has been made here to the reality that the UK's national power is shrinking.

There were always critics of the relationship and the burden it meant, today they are more vocal and in my opinion growing. Part of this comes from the fear that the UK is simply 'America's Ghurkha' and follows the USA into conflicts that are not in our national interest. The USA is no longer seen as the ultimate provider of security, as it was in the 'Cold War'. That provider is us alone and MAYBE with others.

Those in the Whitehall-Westminster-Cheltenham corridor have ignored how public opinion has changed. This has not been helped by understandable, but confusing - to Brits who travel to the USA - decisions and actions (well reported in newspapers traditionally friendly to the USA). The numbers of UK visitors to the USA has dropped in part reflecting this; the US$ to UK£ exchange rate has an impact too.

The GWOT has not helped too, yes war weariness is a factor, but when many look at the USA through a human rights and justice lens questions are asked.

Just what exactly does the UK bring to this relationship - that is in the British national interest? I would argue that our military is over-extended and under-resourced. So for example our role "East of Suez" is unwise, especially in the Gulf, where there plety of military capability already. We should stay in Europe. The recent reporting how little has changed after the vote to bomb Syria is a good example.

Does the UK really need a replacement for Trident? There are serious voices arguing it is an expensive political gesture. Leaving aside the problem if Scotland asserts its independence.

Perhaps US agreement to selling such a successor is what the author is recommending when early on he states 'the US should invest more heavily in its one stalwart ally'? What else could this investment be?

There is little evidence to be seen here that as the author states 'the United Kingdom is forced to deal with current issues such as the Syrian refugee crisis and a bold, aggressive Russia.'

Other European nations closer to these matters are being forced to deal with them, not the UK - apart from rhetoric, with a few boats being deployed in the Mediterranean and the Baltic Air Patrol.

The US-UK "Special Relationship" is the result of Britain becoming a third rate power desperately trying to remain important. (It's infatuation with Trident is also the result of this desire to be a major power). It's really "Chester" to the American "Spike". After Basra and Helmand it's not clear what having the Brits tag along on a small war brings but presentations that start "We found in Northern Ireland", NAAFIs and surprisingly good military cooks.

This is an exceptionally well constructed and sharply written article by the author. His ability to highlight the critical aspects of our most vital international partnership, especially during this critical time in our nation's history, is both enlightening and impactful. Thank you Mr. Ward for drawing attention to a crucial relationship our nation tends to under appreciate and take for granted until we really have to circle the wagons.

"The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men..."