Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Special Relationship? Definite or Indefinite?

Out of politeness perhaps, or in search of a cure for insomnia, I’ve been asked several times to write a diary about current UK politics. That would be great if you’re fascinated by the sight of paint drying, grass growing, or traffic lights changing…

But fortunately yesterday, for her first foreign meeting with a European equivalent, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chose to meet David Miliband, the fresh-faced UK Foreign Secretary and said.

“It is often said the United States and Britain have enjoyed a special relationship. It is certainly special in my mind and one that has proven very productive,”

Of course, as is the way of these things (i.e. the relation of poodle to master) David Miliband couldn’t help changing the article, when he averred the he wanted to:

“renew and refresh the special relationship”

It makes sense. For a medium sized power, there’s nothing so reassuring at night than to feel you have a special definite alliance with the superpower. In fact, I would say that the principle of British foreign policy since the Suez Crisis of 1956 till the Iraq invasion: “It’s better to be wrong with the Americans than right with anyone else…”

There’s no doubt, because of language, history, common law, culture, intermarriage, James Bond, Hollywood and Pop Music, there is a special relationship between the UK and the US. However it is as fraught with many dissonances as congruities. We often assume we have a common culture and will get along (check out Madonna and Guy Ritchie) only to discover that these two cultures are wildly different. On many many levels, from economic structure, government intervention, social policies towards Gay marriage or abortion, attitudes to the role of religion and general church attendance, Britain is firmly European, and has more in common with foreign speaking cheese/salami/bratwurst eaters than our former colonial friends. There are many historians from this side of the pond, like Niall Ferguson, who argue the transatlantic rift is widening, much faster than the slow shift of tectonic plates.

However, at the end of her meeting with Miliband (which was quickly followed by another tete-a-tete with the German foreign minister) Hillary Clinton apparently did slip into something more definitive:

It is a Washington ritual: when a British leader visits, he or she feels obliged to mention “the special relationship”.

But in reality there is no such thing. Britain is no more important to the US than Germany or France. Americans, anxious to avoid upsetting their other allies, steer away from referring to “the special relationship” and speak instead of “a special relationship”.

At least until yesterday, when Hillary Clinton showed her inexperience and, in her final remarks, uttered the words “the special relationship” at a press event with David Miliband.

Oops. Personally I think other countries might have primacy in special relationships: Canada, Mexico or Israel perhaps. But thanks for the thought Hillary, and since there is a close military alliance between US and UK military forces, especially now in Afghanistan, I understand the slip.

From the British point of view, my guess is that we love and resent US power, influence, and cultural reach almost as much as the French. There’s certainly a knee jerk Anti-Americanism in both popular and intellectual life which figures like Reagan and Bush bring to the fore. My former American partner was unlucky/lucky enough to teach US foreign policy at Cambridge around the time of the Iraq invasion of 2003, and would describe her job as ‘spear catching’.

But unlike the French, underlying this resentment at big brash rich clumsy big brother was an underlying family affinity. Certainly, since taking office, Obama’s has helped the USA’s approval ratings shoot up to unprecedented levels.

Perhaps figures like Roosevelt, Kennedy and Obama – who seem to look outward rather than inward, reassure us we won’t be forgotten. Or perhaps they reflect a genuine fear of US isolationism and unilateralism.

We are due a General Election in the next year or so, and quite how this will pan out with a change of UK government I don’t know. Blair, who got on famously with Bill and Hillary, also managed (unfortunately) to find some kind of fellow spirit in George W. Since, for many reasons (including our economically disastrous dependence on financial services and the City) the next Government is unlikely to be Labour, it will be interesting to see how a Conservative administration will deal with a Democratic president.

If the noises made as long ago as last summer by the Tory Leader David Cameron are anything to go by, Obama will be cited as an inspiration by Conservative as well. This might seem bizarre, but Tories have always been passionate about alliances with the US since you’ve had all the big guns, and  since British conservatives are well to the left of American Republicans on most social and economic issues (even to the left of many Democrats) this is not such a stretch.

As Andrew Sullivan is constantly pointing out, the centrist pragmatic Burkean form of politics we call Conservatism has a lot in common with Obama’s style.

But one area, I think, will be problematic: economics and the relationship with Europe as a whole. The danger of too close a US/UK lovefest has always been, in my mind, the idea that we could somehow sail away from Europe, moor our Islands somewhere off the coast of New England, and become an extra Nafta member, or 51st State. Anti European Tories are always mooting this, and such Anglo American fanaticism was the real reason for Thatcher’s downfall. We love the US, and UK companies have intensive and extensive investments, but Europe is the main trade partner by far, and our social moraes, the structure of our societies and cities, is visibly European and has always been so.

While our economies drift further apart, we are met with the paradox that on a tactical and strategic level, US and UK forces are even more intertwined. The various elements of the British Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, comprise one of the few remaining national armed forces able to project power abroad (with US airlift). Most other European armies are static and defensive. Their capabilities don’t gel with US  communications, posture or aggressive kinetic techniques. British forces do, and whether Conservative or Labour, it seems that both sides like it that way.

So perhaps this is the special relationship, at least in military terms – but having rambled through the options, I’d love to hear what the Moose thinks.



  1. Steve M

    My view is, since you guys were about the only ones willing to be full partners in something as stupid as the war in Iraq, I’d say that’s a pretty special relationship!  But I certainly hope Mexico wasn’t outraged over Hillary’s oh-so-indelicate choice of articles (diplomacy is so silly sometimes).

    But fortunately yesterday, for her first foreign meeting with a European Head of State, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chose to meet David Miliband, the fresh-faced UK Foreign Secretary…

    Is David Miliband truly a European Head of State?  Is he even European? 😉

  2. michaelevan

    Do we know that Clinton’s use of the definite instead of the indefinite was a mistake? The author of the linked column seems to be pretty sure, but it’s not obvious to me. As others point out, the Iraq stuff did kinda bring us closer together, for example…

  3. sricki

    compared to many of the esteemed Moose on this site, so let me approach this from a personal perspective rather than a global one.

    There is something about growing up as an American that makes it “easy” to identify with our one time colonial masters. Among some individuals (in my generation, at least), there is a certain fascination with British art and culture that I’m not sure how to describe. Among the “intellectuals” (in whose ranks I pretend to run), there is a sort of respect for British art, literature, and poetry which runs deep. With me this began before I learned to read, with my mother stuffing things which were probably well beyond my capacity to understand firmly down my throat (not that I minded) in the evenings before bed. Along with things like “The Curious Kitten”, “How the Elephant Got Its Trunk”, and “Goofy’s Big Race”, I was read King Lear, The Canterbury Tales, and Don Juan. My parents’ idea of what makes a person “cultured” is altogether strange. As a 4-year-old, they introduced me to Laurence Olivier’s version of Hamlet, as well as to The Terminator. Their reasoning on the latter? They “thought it was cool.”

    But in my snotty private school, it was not the differences between our cultures upon which we focused — rather, they taught us of our similarities. My teachers spoke of your writers and poets, and even some of your politicians, with much the same reverence as they did our own. The respect we were taught for certain figures made it easier, if not in fact somehow pleasurable, to assume that the two cultures are tightly bound — which in many ways they are. They simply diverge far more often and more widely than most Americans who bother to think on it truly realize. (Just look at the way you silly bastards spell, for example!) We are not as inextricably interwoven as many Americans might like to think. But even even as a child studying world history, I always wanted the British to win, no matter the conflict. It’s as if they were Americans by association, US citizens by proxy. For a very long time, they were, to my young mind, “my ancestors”, despite the reality that, in fact, most of my ancestors were German.  Among the simpler in my generation, this love for your culture manifested itself purely in the form of a Monty Python fetish (and I freely confess my own fondness for British television — my paternal grandfather hooked me on several shows which used to rerun on American stations when I was a child). And for my part — and that of many others — there was also a religious tie. I was raised an Episcopalian, and the denomination spawned from the Anglican Church. Since the blow up over the homosexual bishop,  the Episcopal Church has split, with a number of former members (some of my family among them) joining the Anglican Church.

    I think there are innumerable reasons for Americans’ affinity, natural or pseudo-manufactured, with your country. Those I’ve mentioned are largely literary and hardly explain the widespread belief by many Americans that we share, for the most part, a common culture and similar ideologies. Yet many believe it, perhaps in large part simply because, for whatever reason, they wish it. Perhaps it is comforting to think there’s another US — another “us” — out there in the world. A comforting thought to believe that another country “understands” us because it “knows” us and perhaps in some way is us. Not realistic, but comforting.

  4. anna shane

    What do the brits think of our fundamentalist Christians and the role they played in politics under George, and the role they currently play in our running politicians, and those ‘faith-based’ initiatives?’  Anything comparable across the pond?

    What do brits think of our ‘war on terrorism?’ do Brits see terrorism, state sponsored or individualistic, as crimes or acts of war?  

    What do the brits think our special relationship with ourselves? Do they see us as a super-power uniquely allowed to interfere with other nations? And if so, which ones?  

    Just, for if you can’t sleep?  

  5. Elch

    The question is whether it is about partnership or relationship. A relationship is healthy when one party is strong and honest enough to say “No” and the other party is able to accept it, provided that the reasons and arguments are valid. I believe that nations having such a strong relationship with the US will be clearly favored in this new political term.

  6. Stipes

    You’ve got me thinking about the perspective of UKers with respect to other English speaking former colonies.

    How do you guys view your relationship with Canada and Australia?

    Granted, neither are superpowers, but they are still very large economies, and Canada is a petroleum superpower in many ways.

    Thanks for the great diary.



  7. spacemanspiff

    The British media are awash in stories today about how the Cheney-Bush administration threatened to end intelligence cooperation if the UK government revealed evidence that a British resident, Ethiopian-born Binyam Mohammed, was tortured at the Guantánamo detention center in Cuba. Two leading High Court judges in the long-running high-profile case are also saying they’d been told by the Foreign Office that the threat still applies under the Obama administration.

    Great links and a great read.

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