This article was adapted from a talk 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 was held at King’s College London on November 13–15, 2014.
What is grand strategy, and how do we know it when we see it? Many are positively dismissive of the concept. Two of the last three U.S. Presidents have expressed skepticism that such a thing exists. Some analysts claim that while grand strategy may have been a useful concept for understanding an era where great-power wars drove world politics, it is less helpful for understanding the transnational challenges that drive the 21st century, such as climate change, cyber threats, migration, global public health, and terrorism. It must also be acknowledged that some of the academic programs created to study and promulgate grand strategy have not always been well received.
To understand the concept and its usefulness, we must move away from the caricatured, stylized version that often accompanies descriptions of specific grand strategies and grand strategists, such as George Kennan’s containment doctrine and its relationship to the actual policies and grand strategies of the Truman Administration. As we know, the two were far from the same thing. We should focus less on how grand strategy is formulated than how it is applied in the world, and what happens when grand strategy interacts with reality and is found wanting. The arena of international policy is one that requires constant adaptation to new circumstances, recognition of unintended consequences and second-order effects, and acknowledgment of the often-crippling constraints of bureaucracies and politics, both domestic and international, to say nothing of contingency and fortune. Merely possessing a compelling intellectual architecture is not enough for a grand strategy to be effective. Good grand strategy seeks compatibility with the institutions and decision-makers that carry it out, recognizes the constraints of context and history, contains within it the flexibility to change and adapt, and understands that often the most one can hope for is to achieve second best.
As a case study, let us consider the foundations of the special relationship between Great Britain and the United States. Some may find the implication that the relationship is founded merely on grand strategy to be surprising. Doesn’t the relationship encompass more than complementary strategic interests—indeed, don’t the United States and Great Britain share a vision and understanding of the world?
When viewed through certain lenses, this characterization rings true. We all recognize the powerful connections of shared culture and language, although having read the sharp critiques of America by novelists from Charles Dickens to Graham Greene to John Le Carré, we might also acknowledge that this affinity is often overstated. Perhaps more powerfully, we can all call up images of close bonds between American and British leaders: Churchill and Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Harold MacMillan, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, Tony Blair and both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Across parties and time, American Presidents and British Prime Ministers have presented a compelling picture of deep friendship and cooperation.
At heart, however, a special relationship must be based on something deeper than shared culture and personal connections. National interests drive policies and shape grand strategies, including alliances. To what extent have American and British grand strategic interests overlapped, and how often have they been at odds?
And here is where the puzzle emerges for historians. It would be a stretch to claim that there was anything special in the relationship before World War II. The documents of the interwar period reveal not only competing goals, but also often bitterness and distrust between the two English-speaking nations. America’s late intervention in World War I, the radical and ultimately failed proposals of Woodrow Wilson, recriminations over war debts, reparations, and financial diplomacy, and the isolationism exacerbated in the United States by economic calamity all generated resentment in Britain. For their part, many Americans came to regret their intervention in World War I and bemoan Britain’s imperial policies.
World War II, or so we are told, ended these tensions and created the foundation for the special relationship. Whatever differences existed in both political and military strategy during the war itself—and as we know, there were many—the shared purpose of defeating Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan created bonds that lasted into the postwar period. According to this narrative, the United States and Great Britain moved seamlessly from achieving their military victory to taking on the two great tasks of the postwar world: rebuilding the political and especially economic foundations of the global order and containing the threatening power of the Soviet Union.
A closer look at specific policies during the postwar period, however, reveals many sharp disagreements. These dissimilarities were not simply tactical differences over how to carry out a broader, shared grand strategy. Instead, they appear to be fundamental cleavages where the national interests of Great Britain and the United States diverged in important ways. In fact, viewed over the last seventy years, the sheer number and depth of Anglo-American disagreements in the international economic, geopolitical, and military realms are enough to call into question the very idea of a special relationship. If the latter does truly exist, we need to do a better job of identifying and understanding the sources of this extraordinary cooperation, which appears to flourish despite these profound differences.
Consider first the international economic area. Documents from the 1944 Bretton Woods conference reveal a wide gulf between the plans of the top British negotiator, John Maynard Keynes, and the American negotiator, Harry Dexter White. Whether or not Lord Halifax in fact said those famous words to Keynes (“they have all the money bags, but we have all the brains”), there existed deep philosophical and practical differences over what the global economic order should look like. The battles over international monetary policy continued in the late 1940s, as the Americans demanded and the British refused to end imperial preferences and to make sterling convertible. As the historian Diane Kunz showed, British monetary weakness was ruthlessly exploited by the Eisenhower Administration to compel a withdrawal during the Suez Crisis of 1956. The United States complained constantly about the weakness of British sterling, and feared the devaluations of 1949 and 1967 would undermine international monetary stability. Great Britain’s leadership resented U.S. pressure to cut domestic expenditures and pursue deflationary policies to resolve its balance of payments deficit throughout this period.
These tensions continued into the 1970s. It is often forgotten that the Bank of England’s signal that it would demand American gold for dollars hastened President Richard Nixon’s decision to end the Bretton Woods monetary system unilaterally in August 1971. The British must have felt the International Monetary Fund bailout in 1976 was revenge, as the American-dominated institution demanded what were seen as draconian budget cuts and loan conditions that Britain believed more appropriate for a third-world country. The chilly monetary relations continued in the 1980s, with the volatility of the dollar and the efforts of the Plaza and Louvre accords to establish monetary coordination. In short, while it might be too strong to label Great Britain and the United States outright rivals in the international monetary sphere, they were rarely allies. Their record in trade relations in the postwar period, it should be noted, was little better.
Geopolitically, UK-U.S. relations were hardly more aligned. At heart, much of this was driven by a disagreement over the role of empires in modern world politics combined with contrasting visions of how to deal with the Soviet Union. Writ large, Great Britain left the war with a desire to maintain its imperial status, while the United States put major pressure on Great Britain to divest itself of its colonies. How the empire was divested was also a source of tension, ranging from India to Palestine to the African colonies.
Furthermore, in every major region of the world, there were sharp differences. After the war, Great Britain supported France’s efforts to reclaim its colonies in Southeast Asia, initially against American wishes. Britain’s policy towards the People’s Republic of China was a good deal softer than that of the United States due to its commitment to Hong Kong, and American officials complained constantly about it. Britain feared America’s aggressiveness on the Korean peninsula, while President Lyndon B. Johnson was bitterly disappointed by his colleague Harold Wilson’s lack of support for his military policies in the region. Differences in the Middle East were even worse. The Suez fiasco was of course a low point, but ranging from Iran to Iraq to the Gulf States, there appear to have been more differences in strategies than similarities. The post-1967 devaluation accelerated the British withdrawal “East of Suez,” forcing a United States hampered by Vietnam to fill the ensuing power vacuum with less-than-ideal alliances with the Shah’s Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.
Matters were no more cooperative in Europe. Great Britain often complained that U.S. military policies, especially in the nuclear realm, were too aggressive, while the Americans protested that British leaders were too eager to run off to Moscow for a summit with Soviet leaders. Throughout the 1950s, Great Britain insisted upon keeping its distance from European economic integration, until it was clear by the 1960s that the scheme was working. At that point, Great Britain’s need to maintain distance from its Atlantic partner to win France’s trust especially was rankling. International monetary woes drove the British to reduce their NATO conventional commitments, thinning an already small force and rendering NATO’s pledge to shift to a strategy of flexible response hollow. Great Britain and the United States also disagreed over Berlin strategy and the German question, with the former not eager to risk war to provide security for its former enemy.
Some might answer this critique by saying that the special relationship is of more recent vintage—surely this situation had corrected itself by the time Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush appeared on the scene. After all, in addition to their obviously strong personal relations, there was a deep political and even ideological affinity between these leaders.
Even here, however, we see stark differences. The United States did not support Great Britain’s war in the Falklands. Documents released from Britain’s National Archives two years ago reveal deep anger at America’s U.N. Ambassador, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, and her support for Argentina’s claims to the islands, and record Thatcher’s dismissal of President Reagan’s request that the British forces stand down. Thatcher was also critical of Reagan’s invasion of Grenada and his policy of sanctioning companies that built gas pipelines to the Soviet Union. She was horrified when he almost agreed to eliminate nuclear weapons during his summit with Gorbachev at Reykjavik.
Only a few years later, the differences between Thatcher and her American partner, President Bush, were even more sharp, and over something of enormous geopolitical consequence—the future status of Germany in the aftermath of the Cold War. Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is easy to forget how adamantly opposed Thatcher was to efforts to reunify East and West Germany. Recall the infamous Chequers affair, when the Prime Minister gathered six prominent experts on German history, whose less-than-flattering discussion of Germany’s future was leaked to the press.
Of course, there are many examples of close alignment and even shared grand strategy between the U.S. and Great Britain from that time; both shared a view that the Soviet Union was an implacable foe to be contained. To give just one example of deep cooperation that is rarely noted, Great Britain and the United States have long been close and effective partners on the issue of nuclear nonproliferation. Great Britain was the prime mover on the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, worked closely with the United States and the Soviet Union on the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the ensuing London Suppliers group, and often coordinated with the United States on specific problematic proliferation cases such as Pakistan and South Africa. And of course, no matter what the geopolitical and economic differences, the special relationship was perhaps most special in the extraordinary and historically unprecedented field of intelligence sharing.
Yet there is a puzzle, one that extends beyond the specifics of the Anglo-American relationship to the whole issue of how international relations function. Perhaps the real usable lesson lies in how these two great nations could have such wide strategic and even grand strategic differences yet still remain the closest of friends and allies. What is the key ingredient here, the factor or factors that trump our usual notion that there are no permanent friends in world politics, only interests? Why did the special relationship persist, despite differences and tensions, and can these lessons be exported to other geopolitical relationships? Or is there something unique—historically, culturally, and or geopolitically—between these two countries that can’t be replicated elsewhere? I don’t think we fully know the answer to this, but I hope it is an important part of the research agenda that emerges from this remarkable partnership between King’s College and the University of Texas. Perhaps that is what is most special about the special relationship—that it defies easy definition or understanding.