Recasting the Special Relationship

Author(s):  Ian Kearns, Andrew Gamble
Published date:  22 Aug 2007
Source:  A Progressive Foreign Policy for the UK

A comprehensive national security strategy should be used to provide a new basis for policy discussions between the UK and the US.

The notion of a special relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States was first articulated by Winston Churchill sixty years ago in a speech in Fulton, Missouri (Churchill 1948). In this speech, Churchill sought to define the UK’s role in an international system that had been utterly transformed by the Second World War. The huge sacrifices demanded by the war had visibly shrunk UK power, greatly reducing its strength relative to other great powers.

Recognizing this, Churchill suggested that the UK still had a future as a great power, but at the intersection of three circles – Empire, Europe and Anglo-America. For him, the special relationship was one in which the US, because of its greater material and human resources, would now play the leading role in shaping world affairs, with the UK acting both in parallel and as a junior partner in this endeavour.

In the decades that have followed the Fulton speech, the special relationship has been the subject of much mockery and criticism, as UK power and capacity has waned and the US has become more dominant, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The UK has been described as the fifty-first state of the US, as America’s unsinkable aircraft carrier, and UK leaders (including both Thatcher and Blair) as America’s poodle. Moreover, some critics have argued that the special relationship is largely an illusion, that it is valued more highly by the British than it ever has been by the Americans, and that in any case the US has special relationships with many other states – Germany, Japan, Australia, Mexico, Turkey and Israel among them (Dumbrell 2001).

Nevertheless, successive governments have attached huge importance to their relationship with the US and made it a central focus of UK foreign policy. If anything, this commitment to the US has been even stronger in the last twenty-five years, under Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair, than it was before.

In this chapter we reflect on the UK/US relationship and suggest a new approach that would be more consistent with the goals and values of a progressive foreign policy. The chapter is divided into four sections. The first sets out the interests which shape the UK attitude towards the US. The second gives a brief account of the evolution of the special relationship over time. The third section analyses the strains in the Anglo-American relationship precipitated by the adoption of the Bush doctrine in the US. The fourth section recommends policy options for the UK for dealing differently with the US.

The full text can be found in this pdf document.