Transatlantic Briefing No. 12-06

Some Thoughts on the ‘Special Relationship’

Recently Kendall Myers a veteran State Department employee lambasted the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and America. If there was such as relationship, he said, the US had not noticed. To drive the point home Myers said that “the poodle factor did not begin with Tony Blair; it began, yes, with Winston Churchill.” While claims perhaps for more balance in US-UK relations are correct, to say there is no special relationship is to speak falsely.

There has always been a certain degree of myth involved with the special relationship. Back in the 1940s Roosevelt was sceptical of Churchill and made it clear that the US was not going to fight a war to preserve the British Empire, but to promote freedom and democracy. Even with such auspicious beginnings there has always been some substance to the relationship. How effective one sees the relationship depends ultimately on how the relationship is defined. It seems that many commentators define it as the UK having a veto or significant influence over US Foreign Policy. This is certainly not the case. By this definition there is no special relationship.

The fact of that matter is, however, that Britain does have a special relationship with the US. UK officials see a large amount of classified material, which is not necessarily show to other close allies. Some UK military personnel in Washington have free access to work in the Pentagon without escorts. Likewise, a select number of US Embassy employees have more open access to the FCO and MoD. Exchanges between US and UK intelligence, military and foreign affairs outfits are extensive. It is routine for US diplomatic personnel to ring up UK counterparts in Whitehall to review the content of outgoing cables. This is not commonplace in any other diplomatic post. As one State Department employee once told me ‘Embassy London is unlike any other in the world. We do not work nearly as closely with any other ally. Paris, Berlin – very different from London.” At the higher levels US Secretaries routinely ring up their UK counterparts, something they do not do nearly to the same extent with other countries.

There is a lot to be said for this relationship. While it might not mean that the UK has significant influence on US policy, it is a durable working relationship that goes beyond the terms of Presidents and Prime Ministers. Furthermore, the behind the scenes nature of the relationship does not mean that the UK does not have influence over US policy – in the end it depends on the climate in Washington. Remember, it was Tony Blair that convinced Bill Clinton to intervene in Kosovo. Tony Blair also prevailed in pushing George Bush to try for not one, but two resolutions at the UN to authorize the use of force against Iraq in 2003. Small victories perhaps, but victories nonetheless.

Is it really surprising that President Bush will not give in to Prime Minister Blair’s pleas for a comprehensive approach to the Middle East? Not really. The President has sidelined a number of US allies and organizations such as NATO, if anything the British have suffered the least from his unilateral tendencies. With regards to Iraq, the President is prepared to sideline a bipartisan report composed by a panel of eminent Washington hands – what makes any Brit think that the UK would have influence on US policy when the president ignores his fellow Americans’ advice? Even after loosing both houses of Congress, in large part because of his war in Iraq, President Bush refuses to change the general direction of his policy.

There is no doubt that the current state of relations between the UK and US is skewed and needs to be redressed. But to say that there is no ‘special relationship’ is to simply colour over the facts. I do not know how London should proceed in attempting to push US policy in one direction or another given the stubbornness of President Bush. I do know, however, that to call a Prime Minister a ‘poodle’ because he has worked to strengthen relations in a time of immense strain wreaks of ignorance.

Dr. Michael Williams, Head of the Transatlantic Programme

The views and comments offered here do not necessarily reflect those of the Royal United Services Institute.


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