The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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A Special Relationship in Jeopardy

All four pillars of the Anglo-American alliance have been weakened, but its future is still in our hands.

Published on July 1, 2010

The historic circumstances of America’s birth might not have seemed especially propitious for the development of a close alliance with Great Britain. Our origins in an anti-colonial war of national liberation and our founding President’s injunction against “entangling alliances” kept us at loggerheads with Britain for more than a century. As historian Edward Crapol has argued, anti-British nationalism runs like a

red skein through American history. . . . A clearly discernible pattern of Anglophobia . . . extends from the Revolutionary patriot cursing English tyranny with its suppression of personal and economic liberties, to the aroused farmer of the 1890s berating British plutocrats and denouncing the shackles imposed by British financial power.

One of America’s more colorful turn-of-the-century political figures, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, summarized this view as follows: “America for Americans, and to hell with Britain and her Tories.”1

Today such rhetoric is limited to right-wing isolationists like Pat Buchanan and left-wing extremists like Lyndon LaRouche, but in the 19th century Britain-baiting—or “twisting the lion’s tail”—was a hardy perennial of the American political scene. Indeed, as late as 1895–96 the two countries almost went to war over conflicting claims in Venezuela and American fears that the Monroe Doctrine and the benefits of U.S. hegemony in the Western Hemisphere were at stake. An act of statesmanship by Lord Salisbury, the British Foreign and Prime Minister, helped quell the crisis, but it is instructive that he did not do so out of any idealistic desire to avoid conflict between fraternal English-speaking peoples. As his biographer Andrew Roberts notes, Salisbury had “no sympathy with the increasingly popular concept that there was some form of romantic, special relationship between the two English-speaking peoples. He treated America in the same way as he did France, Germany or Russia, strictly according to the exigencies of Realpolitik.” Salisbury continued to believe that a war with the Americans was “something more than a possibility”, but nonetheless his calm contribution to the resolution of the Venezuelan crisis helped set the relationship between the two countries onto a totally new trajectory, one in which sympathy and romance played no small role.2

Even as Salisbury bestrode the British Empire, the ground was now being laid for a closer Anglo-American relationship–what Bradford Perkins called “the Great Rapprochement.” There were two key elements to this: the interpenetration of national elites, and the emergence of leaders who believed in the importance of the relationship. As Charles S. Campbell noted, “it was the age of transatlantic marriages in high places. More than seventy Americans had married titled Britons by 1903; more than a hundred and thirty by 1914.”3 The 1895 marriage of the Duke of Marlborough to Consuelo Vanderbilt of the American railroading family, although short-lived, was the most famous match of the age. When all was said and done, the Churchill, Chamberlain and Macmillan families each had American connections.

“One might almost stop with that”, Campbell observed archly, “in explaining the rise of friendly feelings between America and Britain.” Connections among offspring of “American robber barons, who sought respectability” and “British aristocrats, who sought dollars”, however, do not entirely explain the turn from antagonism to rapprochement. It also required the confluence of interests that resulted from British recognition of American supremacy in its own hemisphere, a common policy on the “Open Door” in China, and leaders who held the romantic notions about the Anglo-Americans that Salisbury had unsentimentally rejected a few years earlier. Theodore Roosevelt, of course, is the great exemplar of this view. In 1898 he wrote,

I feel very strongly that the English-speaking peoples are now closer together than for a century and a quarter . . . ; for their interests are really fundamentally the same, and they are far more closely akin, not merely in blood, but in feeling and principle, than either is akin to any other people in the world.4

Roosevelt was part of the “Large Policy” group, which included his friends John Hay, Henry Cabot Lodge and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan. Each of them believed in a strategy that “would build up American sea power and claim for the United States its proper place among the nations of the world.”5 These young American imperialists, however, also included in their circle the British diplomat Cecil Spring Rice, who would serve as Ambassador to the United States during World War I, and they did not see America’s rise as counter to Britain’s role in the world. John Hay said that “a friendly understanding with England” should be an “indispensable feature” of U.S. policy. Lodge and Roosevelt agreed and plumped for a British victory in the Boer War. TR even secretly corresponded with King Edward VII to coordinate policy in the first Moroccan crisis.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the hard-nosed Salisbury had been succeeded by Arthur James Balfour, a man with decidedly romantic views about many subjects. Balfour described the Americans as “our kin beyond the sea” and saw the two countries as “great co-heirs of Anglo-Saxon freedom and civilization.” The First Lord of the Admiralty, a young Lord Selborne, saw conflict with the United States as “the greatest evil which could befall the British Empire.”6 Clearly, the Transatlantic network of elites was changing longstanding predispositions, amounting to a cultural and leadership shift of great significance. In the long pull of history it was clear that Britain was making a decision to surrender its supremacy on the high seas and accede to America’s rise without a fight, an approach virtually unprecedented in the history of the international system. As Aaron Friedberg notes, “appeasement of the United States would prove eventually to be a winning gamble. . . . [N]evertheless, it was not a decision in which anyone familiar with the past history of Anglo-American relations could have had overwhelming confidence at the time.”7 Britain’s gamble paid off indeed, with the establishment of a full-fledged “special relationship” during World War II.

The Four Pillars

The backstory of Anglo-American friendship helps to explain the emergence of the first of four essential pillars that make up the “special relationship”: cultural leaders and national political elites who are committed to the notion that the English-speaking peoples have a special mission in the world, a mission that entails policing the global commons and upholding an international order based on open societies, open markets, rule of law and democracy.

During World War II, ties that had been largely limited to the elite spread more broadly through both the U.S. and British populations. The “American occupation” by airmen bombing Germany and troops staging for deployment in the fight against the Nazis led to tens of thousands of marriages at all levels of society. By the end of the war, some 37,000 British war brides had entered the United States. Thus a pillar comprised of networked leadership at the national level was solidified by increased cultural contact among the other classes.

The other three pillars all began to develop during the war, which turned out to be the real crucible of the “special relationship.” The second pillar was the willingness to wage war together in such a way, as strategist Colin Gray put it, that Britain played “deputy sheriff” in support of U.S. military policies.8 The wartime establishment of the Combined Chiefs of Staff established a pattern of intense cooperation between the countries’ two military establishments. At the same time the efforts of the American diplomat Robert Murphy and the British envoy Harold Macmillan to invent the office of Political Advisor for General Eisenhower began a similar norm of close coordination between diplomatic services. Britain then played a vital role in NATO during the Cold War that flowed naturally out of the wartime experience. Then, in the post-Cold War era, when actually going to war rather than merely preparing to do so again became the order of the day, U.S. and British soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines found themselves fighting side by side in the Persian Gulf, the Balkans and Afghanistan.

World War II also gave birth to what Mark Stoler has called the “scientific and intelligence revolutions” in warfare, and in due course, this added two additional pillars to the special relationship.9 The establishment of scientific exchanges—in particular, on nuclear physics and the potential development of atomic weapons—led to specific agreement that such weapons ought to be developed and controlled jointly. Anglo-American nuclear diplomacy and the development of Britain’s nuclear deterrent (a fascinating and complicated story well beyond the scope of this essay) provide multiple examples of this agreement—though the course of its implementation was not smooth.

The outbreak of the war in 1939 occurred just as scientists in Britain were discovering nuclear fission. After initial discussions, Churchill and Roosevelt chose to pursue parallel paths with broad information sharing—what became known as the Manhattan Project in the United States and “Tube alloys” in the United Kingdom. In Quebec in September 1944 the two leaders agreed to pursue “full and effective collaboration” on nuclear weapons. On-again, off-again cooperation between the two countries came to a halt at the end of the war, however, after the United States had used a weapon to devastating effect against Japan. With the incredible power of the “absolute weapon” established, the United States was reluctant to part with its nuclear monopoly and reneged on the FDR-Churchill agreement.

There ensued what one historian has called the “long wait”: Britain was forced to develop its own weapon, and more than a decade passed before the conclusion of the Atomic Energy Defense Agreement of 1958, which one scholar has called “one of the most remarkable agreements ever reached between two sovereign states.” That agreement was later supplemented by the Polaris Sales Agreement, and both have been updated, most recently by exchange of letters between Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W. Bush in December 2006 to enable the modernization of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. The 1958 agreement has thus endured for more than half a century, and, as John Baylis has argued, is a “core element” of the “special relationship.” But it relied, he notes in a Salisburian aside, on “reciprocity rather than sentimental attachment or vague notions of kinship.”10

The intelligence relationship born of the World War II arrangements constitutes the final pillar of the special relationship. Signals intelligence and cryptography, and in particular their fusion with operational activity, were enormously important for the war effort, particularly for winning the “Battle of the Atlantic.” That wartime cooperation was codified and institutionalized in the 1947 UKUSA Agreement, which established a worldwide division of labor (along with Australia and New Zealand) in the domain of signals and communications intelligence. It has been a backbone of the relationship ever since and is one of the particular features that makes the U.S.-U.K. relationship special.

A Contested Relationship

Not everyone agrees that a special relationship has existed, or that, whatever its extent, it is a relationship to be lauded. Doubters and skeptics have included such formidable observers as Max Beloff, Coral Bell and even Raymond Seitz, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James. Detractors include those of the Left and the Right in the United Kingdom and the United States. John Charmley, in the third book of his trilogy on the origins, conduct and aftermath of World War II, argues that Churchill invented the special relationship in the hope that U.S. assistance would save the British Empire.11 In Charmley’s retelling, the outcome was a disaster, with the Empire liquidated and the United Kingdom becoming a dependent of the United States. This argument has been reprised by Pat Buchanan and other right-wing critics of American international primacy. Leftist critics, as well, see the special relationship in terms of the British “poodle trotting obediently at the heels of its master.” Literary expression of this view can be found in Robert Harris’s novel The Ghost (2007), in which a fictional Prime Minister, a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair, is depicted as a CIA asset complicit in torture and murder.

What to make of all this? First, it is clear that the term itself was a Churchillian invention. He may have used it as early as 1945, but it clearly appears in his “Iron Curtain” speech delivered at Fulton, Missouri in 1946:

Neither the sure prevention of war, nor the continuous rise of world organization will be gained without what I have called the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples . . . a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States.

Churchill specified that the requirements for this “fraternal association” were largely in the military-security sphere.

Second, and in light of the above, it is clear that the special relationship was a function of a shifting set of power relations. As Harold Macmillan said during World War II, henceforth Britain would have to play the role of Greece to America’s Rome. Whether any alternate set of policies could have arrested Britain’s relative decline, as Charmley and others argue, seems unlikely.

Third, it is certainly the case, as critics point out, that there were very real moments of tension and even grave crisis in Anglo-American relations during the nearly 65 postwar years of the mature “special relationship.” Even in the heyday of World War II, the relationship was marked by heated debates over the proper strategy for victory in Europe. The American refusal to honor its pledges of cooperation on nuclear arms after the war was such a case. The 1956 crisis over Suez was a particularly painful chapter in the annals of alliance management. During the course of the crisis, President Eisenhower, of all people, made reference in a National Security Council meeting to “perfidious Albion.” The United States subsequently and thoughtlessly undermined British defense policy by cancelling the Skybolt missile. Even during the Reagan-Thatcher years, tension arose over the Falklands War and the U.S. intervention in Grenada, about which Mrs. Thatcher was said to be “incandescent.” A few years later, a severe crisis was barely averted over the Balkans conflict. In addition, throughout the Cold War anything that involved dollars or pounds in arms trade issues could become an arena for cutthroat competition (and remains so to this day).

But all this shows is that a special relationship need not be an antiseptically harmonious and boring one to still be special. On the contrary: What is special, and atypical, is that the relationship has grown rather than suffered from its conflicts. The “long wait” in the nuclear domain was punctuated by a generous British offer of bases for U.S. B-29 bombers and culminated in unprecedented and intensified cooperation in the nuclear arena. Suez precipitated the “golden days” of the Anglo-American relationship under Macmillan, Eisenhower and Kennedy. The twin crises over the Falklands and Grenada did not prevent George Shultz from concluding that the Reagan-Thatcher relationship was “as close as any imaginable between two major leaders.” The disputes over Bosnia presaged a deep cooperation in the Kosovo War. One need not look at the “special relationship” through a Panglossian lens to conclude that it has been real and durable, and has made an enormous contribution to the successful conclusion of the Cold War and the effort at maintaining international order in a disorderly post-Cold War world.

Current Challenges

Noting the mixed but still quite remarkable character of the special relationship, some have suggested that we stop taking its temperature with each change of Administration and accept it as a permanent fixture on the international scene. Jeffrey Engel thus wrote two years ago that, “given that contemporary British and American strategists perceive the same threats today, we should stop questioning the continued vitality of their special relationship. Real alliances . . . are not made between friends, after all, but in opposition to shared opponents.”12 Two years on, this assumption seems questionable.

It is certainly notable that for many Britons the term “special relationship” had become, as Ambassador Raymond Seitz put it, “a kind of knee-jerk catch-phrase, almost like an advertising jingle.”13 The British, too, tend to obsess about the state of the relationship more than do Americans. Hence Gordon Brown and members of his cabinet found themselves obliged to pay ritual obeisance to the concept; indeed, they did so at lugubrious length as the Obama Administration began. Beneath the superficial, honeyed words, however, all four pillars of the relationship are under assault from forces on both sides of the Atlantic.

Gordon Brown and Barack Obama for various reasons did not seem as wedded as their predecessors to the traditional security dimension of the relationship or to the enduring power of symbols, memories, shared experience and consultative access. It certainly cannot have been lost on Britons that in one of his first acts, President Obama rusticated the bust of Winston Churchill that had graced the Oval Office and returned it to the United Kingdom, or that Gordon Brown had to seemingly chase after the President to gain an audience with him. The President, as well, in his first visit to Europe, responded to a question about American exceptionalism by saying he believed in American exceptionalism just as he assumed Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism and the British in British exceptionalism. He implied, in other words, that he believed not at all in American exceptionalism—indeed, that he considered all such self-congratulatory talk to represent egos and ethnocentrisms run amok. Nothing could be more alien or inimical to the spirit of the special relationship than to say such things in public.

The commitment to the special relationship on the other side of the Atlantic also seems less firm than it has been (transient electoral considerations aside). Since it first came into office, the Brown government tried hard to engage in what one former British senior official described to me as “product differentiation.” The public hostility to Tony Blair’s allegedly poodle-like devotion to George W. Bush supposedly made this a necessity. Brown appointed Ministers—Mark Malloch Brown and Douglas Alexander, for example—who were known for their harsh criticism of alleged U.S. unilateralism. Foreign Minister David Milliband himself, who, while constantly praising the importance of U.S.-U.K. ties, “seemed almost willfully to be avoiding the loaded term ‘special relationship.’”14 Meanwhile, Brown’s transparent efforts to distance himself from George W. Bush were compensated for by stories emphasizing his “Ameriphilia”, stressing his vacations in Martha’s Vineyard and interest in all things American. It was a public relations effort the likes of which were last seen in these parts when the U.S. press corps was assured that Yuri Andropov liked to watch Valley of the Dolls while listening to jazz and sipping scotch.

Brown felt called upon to address Anglo-American relations in two speeches, one at the Kennedy Library in Massachusetts in April 2008 and then, after the U.S. presidential election, at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet. In those speeches and in comments by Milliband and Secretary of State Clinton, a clear effort was made to redefine the special relationship away from its hard-power roots and toward a greater emphasis on “soft” or “smart power.” Brown saw the special relationship as an “engine of effective multilateralism.” In Brown’s initial meeting with Obama in February 2009, the two leaders promised to turn the relationship toward solving global problems like poverty, climate change and disease. These are all fine and good things, but they are not the stuff of a Churchillean special relationship, the “cornerstone” of which “from its first days has been shared ‘hard power’”, as Garry Schmitt pointed out.15 The election of Barack Obama has not proven to be the tonic for the “special relationship” that some had hoped it would be after George W. Bush’s supposed excesses and Tony Blair’s supposed deference. There is little warmth to the relationship at the top today.

If there is a deficit of commitment at senior leadership levels, there are also broader cultural forces at work that may well erode the alliance. Today, the Transatlantic networks and ties of the past are being supplanted by a European focus among the British elite. The generation of officials on both sides of the Atlantic who grew up with the habits of consultation is retiring, supplanted by a new generation for whom the special relationship will seem like an idea well past its time. As if these forces were not enough, there is also the vexed question of how Britain will deal with problems of integrating its largely South Asian Muslim minority and the possible impact on British foreign policy in the long run.

What of the second pillar? Britain’s political will and capability to play the “deputy sheriff” role is also contested. Public attitudes are changing, partially in response to events in Iraq and Afghanistan. Polling data suggests that Britons increasingly look more to Europe than to the United States for leadership in solving international problems and increasingly take a view of the use of force in international affairs that is closer to that prevailing in continental Europe than in the United States. Some suggest that even the British Ministry of Defence—the MOD—has been infected by this attitude. An anonymous columnist and military officer who had worked at the MOD writes,

Most people still believe that the MOD is essentially a military organization. It is not. It is an organization dominated numerically, culturally and structurally by civil servants and consultants, many of whom are unsympathetic to its underlying purpose or even hostile to the military and its ethos. You just have to spend a few days at the MOD before you realize that the culture here is not just non-military, but anti-military.16

A raft of anecdotal evidence supports this conclusion. Boris Johnson, now Mayor of London, reported a story in December 2007 about a group of British wounded warriors hounded out of a community pool in Surrey, where they were engaged in physical therapy, by an angry thirty-year old woman who decried their public presence.17 Similarly, a wounded warrior was forced to sleep in his car because he was refused service at a hotel, also in Surrey, because it was company policy not to accept members of the armed forces as guests.18 British military officers rarely appear in uniform in the United Kingdom as opposed to the Pentagon. Taken together these episodes make one wonder if the United Kingdom is becoming part of a debellicized Europe. The pressures that Gordon Brown came under with regard to Afghanistan seem a predictable symptom of this larger problem.

Clearly, too, the costs of Britain’s overseas interventions (before and after 9/11) have been steep, and the defense budget has simply not kept pace. The British defense procurement program is overcommitted with requirements to purchase two aircraft carriers, new frigates, a future rapid-effects system for the Army, the Joint Strike Fighter, Typhoon fighters, recapitalizing the Army’s equipment losses in Iraq and Afghanistan and modernizing the nuclear deterrent. As two British observers have noted, the special relationship is a security relationship whose “maintenance requires the British government to invest enough in military personnel, equipment and operations, and in intelligence resources, to justify continued access to US policy-making.”19 But whether Britain has either the will or the wallet to support all this is now an open question. After a post-Cold War decade in which British real defense spending declined by about 25 percent, prospects for future spending are even worse. In a recent paper for the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Malcolm Chalmers writes about preparing for the “lean years” and foresees an 11 percent decline in real terms in defense expenditures through 2017. Hew Strachan, a military historian and strategic studies scholar, has talked about the “the strategic gap” in British defense policy; others have begun speaking of “British national defence in an age of austerity.”

In many ways, the debate about Britain’s defense priorities resembles that in the United States. As we debate balanced force postures as opposed to tilts toward counterinsurgency or peer-competitor sorts of contingencies, so Britain debates whether to invest in irregular warfare capabilities, a view associated with Rupert Smith, or to prepare for interstate war, as Colin Gray has argued. Britain’s next Strategic Defence Review will presumably tell us how the United Kingdom will balance these requirements and whether, at the end of the day, it will still be prepared to play the “deputy sheriff” role.20

In this budgetary tangle, the third pillar of the special relationship—the British nuclear deterrent—seems particularly at risk. Although it was only three years ago that the Polaris agreement was updated and extended through an exchange of letters that promised U.S. support for efforts to modernize the British deterrent, budgetary and political realities have put the program on the chopping block. Tony Blair took on the task of getting the U.S.-U.K. agreement done before he left office in order to spare Gordon Brown the embarrassment of having to stare down the backbenchers in his own party. Today, however, arguments are advanced that question the relevance of “an instrument of such devastating bluntness to threats described by complexity and interdependence.”

President Obama’s April 2009 Prague speech setting out the goal of “global zero” for nuclear weapons has added mightily to the problem. It created a temptation for Prime Minister Brown, one he should have resisted, to solve a budgetary problem and to contribute to nuclear abolitionism all at the same time. The Prime Minister, it was reported in the press, was prepared to cut the number of nuclear-capable submarines from four to three in the discussions among the Security Council members about nuclear non-proliferation in September. The Financial Times observed, “The move could result in billions of pounds of cost savings at a time of severe spending constraints.”21

It is hard to imagine that such an offer will impress Kim Jong-il or the mullahs in Tehran as they consider their own nuclear weapons efforts, but certainly it makes for a slippery slope toward the United Kingdom giving up its nuclear deterrent entirely. As former Minister of Defense John Hutton has explained, without the fourth boat it is impossible to mount a round-the-clock deterrent. He told the BBC that, “You’ve got to have cover all the time, every single day of the year, and we’ve not found a way of achieving that with less than four boats, and no other navy has either.” The distance from three to zero will be about the same as that from four to three in political math, for it will prove difficult to contend with critics who will argue that if it is only going to be on patrol for three weeks out of each month, there is no point bearing the cost.

If that were to happen, Britain’s ability to “punch above its weight”, to use Tony Blair’s phrase, would be compromised, as would its status as the only member of the Perm 5 members of the UN Security Council to lack a nuclear deterrent. From the U.S. point of view, a post-nuclear Britain would merely increase pressure on the United States for further and premature reductions and reinforce the reluctance of Congress to fund a much needed modernization of the U.S. weapons stockpile. It would certainly bring to a close a unique chapter in the history of Anglo-American relations.

Finally, there is the intelligence relationship, where storm clouds are also gathering over the alliance. The al-Megrahi case, the Binyamin Mohammed case, the propaganda war waged from London by Moazzam Begg after his release from Guantánamo, and the inability to maintain the secrecy of classified material supplied to Her Majesty’s government in various coroners’ inquests, are all having a corrosive effect on the trust necessary for a productive intelligence relationship. We have lived through worse in the past, of course, in the infamous defections of Philby, Burgess and MacLean; but there are still grounds for concern.

What Will Be Lost

The special relationship, which has experienced its ups and downs and still managed to return stronger for the challenges, may do so again. I hope so, for the United States continues to need British help and counsel. The current view that the United Kingdom follows obediently in the footsteps of the United States is ahistorical in the extreme. The United Kingdom played an important role in developing the Cold War consensus in the 1940s that Soviet power in the heart of Europe needed to be contained by a “preponderance of power.” The Thatcher-Reagan relationship was critical to holding NATO together against Soviet pressures in the 1980s, setting the stage for the successful denouement of the Cold War. Thatcher’s fortuitous presence by George H.W. Bush’s side in Aspen, Colorado in the days after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait had a steadying influence as the crisis unfolded. Churchill famously said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing—after they’ve tried everything else.” Less well appreciated, perhaps, is that sometimes we have gotten to the right result more quickly thanks to our “special” Transatlantic tie.

If recounting the past can be difficult—or else the history trade should be a great deal easier than it is—predicting the future is really a tall order. Perhaps the relationship is most likely not to disappear but to fall increasingly into question. The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee Report, “Global Security: UK-US Relations”, does just that, warning that although the tie is “valuable . . . use of the phrase ‘the special relationship’ in its historical sense, to describe the totality of the ever-evolving UK-US relationship, is potentially misleading, and we recommend that its use should be avoided.” The unprecedented election debates among David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg offer further evidence that we may see a prolonged movement toward a European attitude on defense issues. Clegg, now the Deputy PM in the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat government, has been fairly explicit on that score. As Philip Stephens has noted in the Financial Times, “[post-election] Britain stands on the threshold of a wrenching reassessment of its place in the international order.” The special relationship, he noted in a subsequent column, will decline because “the dire condition of the public finances promises deep cuts in an already overstretched defence budget”, and after Iraq and Afghanistan the public will no longer support “liberal interventionism.” In short, the relationship will decline because “Britain is likely to have less to offer as far as the Americans are concerned.”

This seems to be happening for deep cultural reasons, but the European political-ideological model, which has exerted such an attractive, almost magnetic force pulling Britain to such a conclusion, has itself fallen on hard times with the emergence of the sovereign debt crisis sparked by the calamity of Greek finances. As usual, contingency will matter. The degree to which David Cameron will allow Nick Clegg to influence national security policy will make a difference. So will the posture of the British Labour Party in opposition, no matter which of the Milliband brothers emerges as party leader. It is hard to imagine, however, that Tony Blair’s instinctive and robust Atlanticism will have much future in their Labour Party. David Milliband and others, notably George Robertson and Paddy Ashdown, recent co-chairs of a commission on Britain’s national security strategy in the 21st century, accept the current fashionable notion that the United States is in decline and Britain must therefore find its place in a global, multipolar world. That approach would certainly spell “the end of the affair”, whether the premise on which it is based turns out to be true or not.

Most likely it will not. As Samuel Huntington argued some years ago, U.S. primacy remains an important factor in today’s world and will remain so for some time to come. Among the world’s powers, the U.S. geographic position, demographic situation, openness to innovation and hostility to the stultifying hand of government in the economy will position it well for recovery from current economic travails. What Huntington said about U.S. primacy 15 years ago is still true today:

A world without U.S. primacy will be a world with more violence and disorder and less democracy and economic growth than a world where the United States continues to have more influence than any other country in shaping global affairs. The sustained international primacy of the United States is central to the welfare and security of Americans and to the future of freedom, democracy, open economies, and international order in the world.22

U.S. primacy will continue, but it will not be the unconstrained and uncontested primacy exerted between 1992 and 2004. We will need like-minded allies to help maintain the global commons and uphold the value of democracy, open societies and the global trading regime. Since 1945, the United Kingdom has been our valuable deputy in sustaining global order, and it would be a great shame if the United States were forced to turn to other allies to fill that role. It is worth working hard to prevent that outcome from coming to pass. Affairs of all kinds, including Transatlantic ones, frequently end in bitterness, recrimination and regret. Much harder, for both sides, is the mature friendship that this instance of a special relationship requires today and will continue to require in the future.


1Both quotes taken from Crapol, America for Americans: Economic Nationalism and Anglophobia in the Late Nineteenth Century (Greenwood Press, 1973), p. 4.
2Roberts, Salisbury: Victorian Titan (Weidenfield and Nicholson, 1999), p. 617.
3Campbell, Anglo-American Understanding: 1898–1903 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1957), p. 9.
4Quoted in Walter LaFeber, The American Age: United States Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad since 1750 (W.W. Norton, 1989), p. 174.
5Julius Pratt, Expansionists of 1898: The Acquisition of Hawaii and the Spanish Islands (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1936), pp. 230–32.
6Balfour and Selbourne quoted in David Dimbleby and David Reynolds, An Ocean Apart: The Relationship Between Britain and America in the Twentieth Century (Random House, 1988), p. 38.
7Friedberg, The Weary Titan: Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline, 1895–1905 (Prince­ton University Press, 1988), p. 298.
8Gray, Another Bloody Century: Future Warfare (Weidenfield & Nicholson, 2005), p. 77.
9Stoler, Allies in War: Britain and America Against the Axis Powers, 1940–1945 (Hodder Arnold, 2007).
10Baylis, “Exchanging Nuclear Secrets: Laying the Foundations of the Anglo-American Nuclear Relationship”, Diplomatic History (Winter 2001).
11Charmley, Churchill’s Grand Alliance: A Provocative Reassessment of the ‘Special Relationship’ between England and the U.S. from 1940 to 1957 (Harcourt, Brace & Co, 1995).
12Engel, “Enough Already, It’s Here to Stay: Why We Should Stop Questioning the ‘Special Relationship’”, Argentia: Newsletter of the BISA US Foreign Policy Working Group (December 2007).
13Seitz, Over Here (Orion, 1998).
14John Dumbrell, “The US-UK Special Relationship in a World Twice Transformed”, Cambridge Review of International Affairs (Issue 3, 2004).
15Schmitt, “Defence cuts reduce Britain’s value as an ally”, Financial Times, July 19, 2009.
16The Mole, “Unfit for Purpose”, Standpoint (June 2008).
17Johnson, “How, as Mayor, I would help our brave troops”, The Spectator, December 15, 2007.
18Hannah Fletcher, “Soldier forced to sleep in car after hotel refuses him a room”, The Times (London), September 5, 2008.
19William Wallace and Christopher Phillips, “Reassessing the Special Relationship”, International Affairs (March 2009).
20For a realistic assessment of the likelihood of lowered sights for British national security policy see Philip Stephens, “UK foreign policy: Shrunken ambitions”, Financial Times, April 27, 2010.
21Chris Giles and James Blitz, “Brown to offer cut in Trident sub fleet”, Financial Times, September 22, 2009. Brown’s willingness to sacrifice the fourth Trident boat is ironic because this was precisely the issue on which he challenged Nick Clegg to “get real” in the televised debates. See also Nick Ritchie, “Deterrence dogma? Challenging the relevance of British nuclear weapons”, International Affairs (January 2009); and Ritchie, “Relinquishing nuclear weapons: identities, networks and the British bomb”, International Affairs (February 2010).
22Huntington, “Why International Primacy Matters”, International Security (Spring 1993).

Eric Edelman is a distinguished fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. From 2005–09 he was Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. This essay is adapted from the Alvin H. Bernstein Lecture, delivered on November 10, 2009 at Johns Hopkins University, SAIS.