This article was adapted from a presentation given at a conference called “Grand Strategy and the Anglo-American World View: A Century of the Special Relationship.” The conference was jointly sponsored by King’s College London and the University of Texas at Austin and held at King’s College London on November 13–15, 2014.The Anglo-American relationship has been, is, and is likely to continue to be special, if for no other reason than because almost any other relationship is worse. The worse other diplomatic relationships get, moreover, and the further the world descends from times of tension into times of war, the closer Anglo-American ties become. Never was this more apparent than at the tumultuous end of the Cold War.The statements above beg for a useful definition of that vague term, “special.” This I will not provide. To understand the strength, vitality, and even existence of this special relationship, we should not look, as other have done, to issues of culture, language, shared economies, or shared values. These do matter, the commonality of language in particular. Ultimately, however, even these important factors pale in comparison to the real issue that both created and sustained the special relationship over this past century. It is indeed what drives every alliance. In a word: enemies.Real alliances are not made between friends, after all. They are formed in opposition to shared adversaries. Allies don’t even need to perceive threats in the same manner; they merely have to agree upon their identities.Whatever issues of interest or perspective have divided the United States and the United Kingdom this past century—and there were real issues throughout that threatened to drive them apart—what pulled them together was always stronger. In the era of both world wars it was opposition to fascism, German in particular. During the Cold War the relationship rested upon a shared disdain for communism. Today the threat they share is international terrorism, most often tinged with a radical Islamic hue.Washington’s enemies hate London, and vice versa. We share the same bunker and foxhole. Indeed, the more dire the threat and visceral the hatred, the stronger the relationship becomes, a trend that continued in the Cold War’s wake. Though by no means equal partners to the United States, Britain played a crucial advisory and military role as America’s unacknowledged second-in-command within the coalition that ejected Iraq from Kuwait during the Gulf War. It played a similar role during the Blair-Bush partnership of the 2003 Iraqi invasion. Go to any meeting of intelligence analysts in Washington and one is likely to find a Brit among the ranks (along with citizens of other one-time colonies like New Zealand, Australia, and Canada). This arrangement dates back to the days of Ultra and Enigma and the crusade against Nazi Germany.No other country offers American policymakers such sure-fire support as the United Kingdom, though frankly the competition is weak. Contemporary American policymakers consider the Chinese and Russians to be strategic foes. The Japanese and Germans seem historic warmongers now swinging hard the other way toward a pacifism that significantly undermines their willingness to act—and thus their utility. No American policymaker since Benjamin Franklin ever made a fortune by betting on French acquiescence. Israel, another contender for the term “special relationship,” boasts leaders barely even on speaking terms with the current U.S. President. Everywhere one looks for great powers capable of joining American force with measurable force of their own—a category that does not include undersized allies such as Australia or often Canada—one sees no one willing or capable of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with American international leadership.The White House is thus left with Downing Street. The British might have troubling European tendencies, as successive American administrations have argued, and as Tennyson once wrote they “are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven,” but in truth they are better than anyone else. As the poet continued, “that which we are, we are—One equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will.” With U.S. military force roughly equal to that of the rest of the world combined, at least in terms of spending, what American planners need most of all when looking round for partners is what their allies in the U.K. still possess: that strength in will.The special relationship makes even more sense when viewed through British eyes. For nearly a century, the principle international responsibility of any British Prime Minister has been to hew close to the American President. If one wants a cynical catchphrase for the relationship, it would be this: special, if only by default.This was certainly the case during the tumultuous end of the Cold War. Its players are well-known, and indeed the relative health of the special relationship mirrors the ups and downs in the relationships between the key characters. I speak, of course, of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, George Bush, and John Major.The simple explanation for the way these four interacted, apparent in both popular recollection of these relationships and in the scholarly literature by and large, is one of varying temperatures. Simply put, Reagan and Thatcher enjoyed a warm and close relationship. Bush and Thatcher never burned as bright. True warmth returned to the White House-Downing Street alliance when Major came on the scene.This popular narrative is largely correct, but not entirely. A deeper examination of these relationships shows that, just as Thucydides would have predicted, interests prove a better predictor of intimacy than mere personality. No matter the occupant of the White House or Downing Street at the Cold War’s end, Anglo-American relations proved strongest when outside adversaries loomed largest. They weakened only when adversaries appeared within.The personalities are well-known. Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, found a willing partner in Ronald Reagan, a man today revered by the American right almost as a saint. The two disagreed over many things, yet had far more in common than they had differences. Both were deeply conservative. Both favored blanket endorsements of the market, condemnations of centralized government control, and paeans to the power of unbridled “freedom.” Both loathed authoritarianism in all its varied forms and were quick to identify totalitarian streaks within political opponents. For eight years, they weathered international storms together, confiding in each other and offering support and reassurance when times got tough.Of course, the world could look quite different when viewed from the Potomac as opposed to the Thames. Yet, for example, when Iran-Contra seemed about to scuttle his entire presidency in late 1986 and with impeachment or resignation not wholly unthinkable, it was Thatcher’s hand-written letter that most buoyed Reagan’s spirits. “The press and media are always so ready to criticize,” she’d written, “but your achievements in restoring America’s pride and confidence and in giving the West the confidence it needs are far too substantial to suffer any lasting damage.” Reagan called the Prime Minister right away to thank her, much to the consternation of Donald Regan, White House Chief of Staff, who by this period disliked the idea of his rapidly aging boss speaking to anyone without oversight.Their shared ideology helped their friendship blossom during the 1980s, but what really drove them together was the enemy they shared. Each considered communism an unbridled evil destined for, as Reagan put it with Thatcher watching, “the ash heap of history.”Reagan had made his political career out of similar rhetoric, motivated by the belief that Soviet leaders schemed to conquer the world by force. He rode that crusade all the way to the White House, warning at his first press conference as president that, to achieve world domination, Soviet leaders “have openly and publicly declared that the only morality they recognize is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat, in order to attain that.” Until they rejected their delusional and dangerous ideology the Soviets would find in him an implacable enemy.It was Thatcher who eventually tempered Reagan’s ire, encouraging him to give one Soviet leader in particular a chance to prove himself different from the rest. Mikhail Gorbachev was, in Thatcher’s famous phrase, “someone with whom we could do business.” She implored Reagan to meet him, to listen to him, even as the transcript of their conversation before the warm glow of a Camp David fire notes her warning that “the more charming the adversary, the more dangerous.”In Reagan and Thatcher we see a high point of the special relationship built on a foundation of the recognition of a shared threat, followed by a mutual understanding that the threat, in the form of Mikhail Gorbachev, needed to be dealt with decisively by the mid-1980s. George H.W. Bush, however, saw the world differently. Of course the Soviet Union remained Washington’s greatest strategic threat by the beginning of Bush’s White House tenure in 1989. In more subtle ways, however, Bush’s chief threat, after dispatching Mike Dukakis in the election, was none other than Ronald Reagan.Bush felt a real need to step out of Reagan’s shadow after acting as his wingman for eight years, a role that had only reinforced his public image as a political weathervane. His incoming Secretary of State, James Baker, in particular exemplified the Bush team’s determination to make a clean break from the Reagan crowd.Baker, of course, had served loyally, even brilliantly, as Reagan’s Chief of Staff and then Treasury Secretary, and felt he owed a debt to Reagan that would never be diminished. But he was also Bush’s best friend, going back to their days as tennis partners in Houston during the early 1960s. It was Bush, moreover, whom Baker quite literally credits with saving his life, pulling him out of the deep hole of depression—and away from the bottle—following the tragic early death of his first wife from cancer.Baker may have worked for Reagan, but he was Bush’s man. He meant it when he said in November of 1988 that “this is not a friendly takeover.” Forget the idea that one Republican Administration would easily transfer to the next, he said—there would instead be a harsh break. Baker ordered every senior Reagan political appointee to submit their resignation, so that he and the President-elect could have maximum flexibility in choosing their new team.Baker couldn’t fire Thatcher, but he saw a symbolic opportunity for his man to create some distance between himself and the outgoing President by publicly shaping a different relationship with Britain’s Prime Minister. Despite Bush’s otherwise cordial relationship with her—and, truth be told, the gentlemanly Bush was cordial with everyone he met—this made her Bush’s political adversary.More than just personal politics was at play here, however. Thatcher had staked out a position that Bush ran against in 1988, that the Soviet Union’s decline and reforms, perestroika and glasnost, signaled more than just a geopolitical shift. She thought it symbolized the very end of the Cold War.It was a position held by many in the Reagan camp, eager to claim the trophy of ending the central geopolitical struggle of their age before leaving office. Thatcher even said as much, quite publicly and pointedly, following her farewell state dinner at the White House in November of 1988, three weeks after Bush won the election. Reagan wanted to toast their friendship, but it was Thatcher who stole the show, only minutes after meeting privately with Bush, by telling reporters that: “We are not in a Cold War now,” but instead enjoyed “a new relationship much wider than the Cold War ever was.” Having long vocalized Reagan’s true sentiments following private meetings, Thatcher thus laid claim to the same role with the newly elected Bush, suggesting she still spoke for the President of the United States, no matter whose name was on the White House stationery.The only problem was, she didn’t. Not only did Bush want to distance himself from her for political reasons, he and his team also did not agree with her assessment of Gorbachev and the Cold War’s early demise. It was not over, Bush, Baker, and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft repeatedly preached. They warned that Gorbachev might be lulling us into a false sense of security, hoping to win through what Scowcroft termed a “peace offensive” what Soviet power had proven unable to secure by force: dominance in Europe, and ejection of the American presence across the Atlantic.Indeed, Scowcroft told reporters in his first interview as National Security Adviser in January 1989 that “the Cold War is NOT over.” This was a mantra the Bush Administration would repeat through the summer of 1990, long after the Berlin Wall was down and plans for German reunification settled. In July of that year the President even forbade subordinates from uttering the magic phrase “the cold war is over,” shifting his stance only after Iraq invaded Kuwait that August, a move that sharply refocused American attention away from Europe to the Middle East, and from the problems of bipolarity to the complexity of a post-Cold War world. Thereafter, in Bush’s words, chaos became the Administration’s greatest threat. “Our enemy today is uncertainty and instability,” Bush explained in 1990.He could at least be certain that the British would be at his side. Anglo-American relations declined in importance during Bush’s first full 18 months in office, in large measure because he did not believe as Thatcher did when it came to the Soviet threat, and additionally because they assumed different roles when negotiating the central issue following the Cold War’s eventual end, German reunification. Briefly stated, Bush was for it. He thought the Germans had paid their penance for World War II, and that democracy was sure to be securely rooted after more than two generations in the ground.Moreover, in what was perhaps his most impressive strategic moment, Bush considered unification inevitable by late November of 1989. He thus exacted a price for something already sold, exchanging his promise of support for German unification for the one thing he truly wanted and needed in the spring and summer of 1990: full German participation in NATO. The organization could not survive without the Germans, he reasoned, and without NATO there would exist no formal mechanism by which the United States could remain on the continent. Bush was convinced that the presence of American troops was the sole reason the Soviets had remained outside of Europe for decades, and more importantly the sole reason that Europe had remained peaceful during that time as well. If peace was to prevail on the far side of the Atlantic, the Americans must prevail in staying.Thatcher, as is well-known, trusted German nationalism far less, fearing the threat she experienced in her youth more than declining Soviet power. She also had reason to believe an American exodus from the continent would only enhance Britain’s status in Washington’s strategic calculations. This division strained the special relationship, to the point where members of the Bush Administration openly talked of the Washington-Bonn axis as the new special relationship. Bush was forced to spend considerable time wooing a leader who was supposed to be his closest ally to gain her approval of the central issue of the day.Anglo-American relations never fell into a deep freeze at any point during this period; instead, the heat of the relationship simmered rather than boiled. Bush and Thatcher’s personal relationship, while never fully antagonistic, nonetheless revealed a sense if not of distrust, then of mistrust.That all changed, however, when Saddam Hussein invaded Iraq. The new, shared threat immediately reinvigorated their relationship. It was Thatcher who immediately pledged British support for whatever the Americans decided to do. She ordered her diplomats and military personnel in New York and Washington to immediately coordinate with their American counterparts. It was Thatcher who famously told Bush not to go “wobbly” on his resolve to defend both Kuwait itself and his conception of a new post-Cold War international system based on inviolable sovereignty.A word about “wobbly”: Most remember this infamous tale incorrectly, thinking the British Iron Lady gave the American wimp this advice when they met in Aspen only days after Saddam’s invasion (entirely through the coincidence of earlier scheduling). With his advisers still digesting the news, Bush had yet to lay out the details of his opposition to Hussein’s move. He and Thatcher met, and upon his return to Washington, Bush gave his famous declaration that “this will not stand.” Their conversation must have led to his conversion, her supporters (and his detractors) charge.Not so. The two met in Aspen, but Thatcher’s injunction against wobbling was not uttered on that trip. She in fact issued it several weeks later, when Iraqi ships threatened to break the UN-sanctioned blockade of their country. Due to recent declassification efforts, the documentary record now shows that Bush made his decision to act in Kuwait’s defense before the Aspen meeting. He was simply waiting to gain Saudi Arabia’s explicit approval of the insertion of American forces into the Holy Kingdom before announcing his decision.Bush did not need Thatcher’s encouragement to stand firm, but got it anyway, which is really the point after all: he knew, even before they met, that if American forces prepared to stand their ground in Saudi Arabia, they would soon be joined by their friends from across the Atlantic. The moment a new threat appeared on the horizon, British and American cooperation resumed full force, even if the two countries’ leaders at the time never achieved true friendship.Why did Anglo-American relations truly warm up again only when Major took the helm? Because Major and Bush each saw the world, and the world’s threats, in the same way. Thatcher had already committed Britain to supporting the ouster of Saddam from Kuwait and the reunification of Germany; Major knew his first priority as Prime Minister was keeping close to the Americans.This he surely did, proving a reliable ally in the extreme. Indeed, it is worth noting that two dozen countries sent troops to Desert Storm. More than one hundred voiced their support. But Bush only made two calls before hostilities commenced: to the Saudis, from whose territory those first strikes would be launched, and to Major, his close ally, and ultimately, his friend.This was a friendship that continued through the Gulf War and, more importantly, through the instability of the initial post-Cold war years. Major arguably became Bush’s second most-trusted international adviser (after Canada’s Brian Mulroney), helping to forge if not a common response, then at least a common perception of the central issues of their remaining last months in office, the dissolution of the Soviet Union chief among them.What do these tales from the Cold War’s end tell us about the special relationship? That once more adversaries make allies. When the American President and the British Prime Minister each perceived similar threats, their relationship warmed. More accurately, when they each saw greater threats on the horizon than each other, they remembered why the special relationship existed, and why they ought to renew it. If he were available for comment, Thucydides would be justifiably smug.
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Published on: June 4, 2015
A Special RelationshipNo One Else to Trust
Why does the Anglo-American special relationship endure? Because, as Thucydides pointed out, adversaries make allies.