What are the implications of your answer for the future of the relationship?
Specialness: The state or quality of being special? The incandescent and somewhat conventionalised relationship between Britain and America has always been subject to international scrutiny- the question in reality lies with what made this specific connection “special”. As stated by Thatcher in 1985 “It is special. It just is. And that’s that.” 1 This rather imposing and yet unsatisfying statement emphasises the idea of favouritism and bias between the the states, but with no clarification. The idea that “These little marks, the inverted commas, are evidently meant to convey something important; a certain coolness..”2 is not a sufficient reason, and this essay sets out to define the intrinsic qualities that make this relationship so grandiloquent by examining five key areas; the historical context, the significance of other bilateral relationships, the idea of calculating specialness, the characterisations of the special relationship and the prospects for the future.
Historical context is a crucial aspect in understanding the ‘specialness’ in the Anglo-American relationship. The term “special relationship” was coined during the Second World War . Prime Minister Winston Churchill used it in 1943 about “the possibility of some sort of special association” 3between Britain and the United States. It was, of course, in Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech, delivered at Fulton, Missouri, on 5 March 1946, that the term came to public attention, and that the vague alliance across the Atlantic ocean, became a central phrase for international politics. Prior to this, the Anglo-American relationship was not as arrant; formerly a British colony America as a nation was born out of the 1776 rebellion, leaving a cultural, religious, linguistic and democratic inheritance that endures today.
Tension persisted throughout the Nineteenth century, with the two countries at war in 1812, the British famously burning down the President’s residence. Fifty years later, the US Civil War raised new tensions, with Britain failing to provide either the Union or Confederate governments with overwhelming support, until the outcome of the conflict conclusively revealed itself. Yet by the Twentieth centuries, both nations based foreign and military policy upon shared experience fighting two world wars during the first half of the century. Thus while Churchill’s 1946 speech cemented the “specialness” of the relationship within the common lexicon, the historical experience of relations between the nations must be recognised.
Dean Acheson’s interpretation was accurate in his 1962 speech; “Britain has lost an Empire and not yet found a role”4. In terms of specialness, this coincides with Walter Russell Mead’s interpretation of “irreconcilability”5 which perceives the relationship as a dilemma which has not been reconciled by Britain. This impacts on the sources of specialness since it encourages a natural pursuit of America, while Britain’s traditional alternative- Europe- remains out of bounds, as does their role in the world. This gave Britain viable reason to involve themselves in global politics, especially during the first and second world wars- hence the insertion of mutual interest made a fermented ground for specialness to develop upon. David Reynolds also claimed “mutual interest”6 as one of the three factors he thought defined ‘specialness’.
It is clear that Reynolds theory was not totally insoluble; this obviously falls to their international pursuits. Hence, are the sources of specialness rooted deep in the midst of World War II and the emergence of the Cold War? At this time America and Britain had a common enemies in Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, resulting in them ‘joining forces’ with a common need and developing an international tag-team defence against the anarchical fï¿½hrer’s of Europe. Reynolds implies since they had effectively won the war together, it made perfect continual sense for them to both look in the same direction for support and cooperation in peacetime7; Britain saw reason to build a strong relationship with America.
This seems to detract from the warm conventional idea of ‘specialness’, and the glamorous spontaneity that halo’s the term, and more so echo’s the idea of functionality. It was constructed for this cause and it was this need that made it useful, and commercially “special”, thus it was not a fact of nature. It was was an intentional conception built at a particular historical period for a particular purpose. Alex Danchev defines the functionalist’s as those who “play down the role of sentiment and shared culture…[and] tend to align themselves with the realist interpretations of international relations”8. However, this is not the only time America or Britain have built an international relationship to serve a purpose, possibly denying this one any unique favouritism.
Thus we approach the existence of other special relationships; time precludes detailed analysis of the two countries’ arrangements with other nations, but a few general points underscore the differences between the Anglo-American relationship and other relationships where one or the other is a partner. In a uni-polar world, or at the very least one that is multi-polar with only one superpower it is unsurprising that many countries claim a ‘special’ relationship with America to a greater or lesser degree.
“The reduction ad absudum of such a proposition is that everyone has a special relationship with the United States, because of the overwhelming power or overweening influence of the latter”9. Yet use of the term ‘special’ overstates the the extent of these relations, misunderstanding the depth and breadth of arrangements between the US and other nations. “The use of the term ‘special’ to describe relationships with America maintains with others distorts our understanding of the peculiarly special Anglo-US bond”10 The countries frequently quoted as US-allies, including Israel, Canada and Mexico, each had strong ties in key areas, whether cultural, linguistic, financial or security-based, but none can lay claim to the scope of relations enjoyed by Britain and the US, nor with the same levels of complex interdependence.
The UK also retains both bilateral and collective relationships with many other countries, whether European partners through economic links such as the European Union; linguistic and intelligence ties with countries such as Canada and Australia; or with the fifty-three Commonwealth countries through previous colonial associations. Indeed, former colonies’ desire to retain strong links with the UK was a source of mystery to the US; as the UK Ambassador to Washington in 1962, Ormsby-Gore’s annual report to London stated it was “a source of mystification to Americans that former colonies should be willing to maintain a special and close relationship with Britain”11 While these relationships inform governmental decisions to a greater or lesser degree, none has the Anglo-American Relations pervasive influence. This influence could be seen as a significant source of specialness, evident especially during the 2003 War on Iraq when Britain favoured America over Europe and all it’s own electorate, and conversely during the 1982 Falklands War when America sided with Britain rather than its ally Argentina.
This calls to question of calculating specialness- could those actions be defined as evidence of specialness? Alex Danchev provides useful context for what is an intangible concept, with a discussion regarding Aristotelian types of friendship. Aristotle defines three kinds of friendship; based on utility, pleasure and goodness12. While Aristotle believed that only the latter, a friendship based on goodness, was perfect, the realpolitik of international relations suggests that only the first, a friendship based on utility, is like to endure in the Anglo-American context. Whilst some have cited the presence of the relationship with reverence, seeing the ‘specialness’ as almost evangelical, this explanation is less plausible than the idea that the two countries perceive the relationship more pragmatically, with clear profit and loss calculations driving decision-making.
In political terms this calculated decision-making is otherwise known as ‘the degree to which a state is willing to oppose its own national interest for the betterment of its ally’, hence it is the extent of the relationship that validates the degree of ‘specialness’. With America as a global hegemon, and a state famously loyal to its own national interest, any example of them taking action which opposes its national interest could be seen as a testament to the ‘specialness’ of said relationship. A prominent example which comes to mind include the 1982 Falklands War whereby President Ronald Reagan cited his support for Britain, despite having a good relationship with Argentina.
This could be seen as America relinquishing its national interest for the betterment of Britain, however a cynic might claim that it was merely a way of America maintaining it’s influence through Britain. Another example includes the 1998 Northern Ireland Peace Agreement, during which President Bill Clinton stood shoulder to shoulder with Prime Minister Tony Blair. This showed how America stood by Britain in its hour of need, and while being in Ireland caused no detriment to America’s global status, it showed how the “specialness” of their relationship took prominence- a situation where a strong friendship between the leaders aided their countries.
Nevertheless, the intangible nature of the relationship is an ambiguity which produces difficulties in defining or measuring degrees and extent of ‘specialness’ empirically, requiring both agreed criteria for assessment and scales of ‘effect’. Danchev proposes criteria to measure against, supported by amplifying information regarding why they are appropriate. While personally sceptical about the extent and utility of the Anglo-American relationship from Britain’s perspective, Danchev’s criteria arguably support the notion on the relationship being unique- especially the ‘mythiciziability’13 of said relationship; having serviceable myths which exist both internal and external to the special relationship, which contribute to its innate ‘specialness’- for example Winston Churchill greeting Franklin Roosevelt “You see, Mr. President I have nothing to hide!”14
Any attempt to measure the extent to which the relationship is special confirms what most observers intuitively recognise, concisely captured by Dumbrell who believes that “radical asymmetry of power… lies at the heart of the relationship” 15 A strong advocate of the Anglo-American relationship, Kimball acknowledges its limitations saying that special never meant equal, seeing the relationship as characterised by competitive competition.16
Difficulties of measurement and the ambiguities of definition can leave the Anglo-American relationship open to attack, even to claims of it being a myth. It can generate unrealistic expectations for the parties involved, potentially leaving both sides unsatisfied with the returns they receive. “At any given moment [the Anglo-American relationship] is not as pliant or as potent- not as special- as one partner would wish”17. Viewed more positively, this uncertainty could be perceived as a fundamental strength of the relationship, permitting more creative ambiguity that enables innovative interpretations by both parties. It could be this imbalance that retains the ‘specialness’ in the marriage; it is precisely because the two countries run the risk of disagreement, frequently over significant issues and yet continue to operate together that reinforces the strength of the relationship.
Many authors have drawn an analogy between the Anglo-American relations and those found in a family. Dr B. Vikekanandan says “they are family quarrels. Two relatives sometimes frustrate, surprise and even aggravate the other; they also interest, amuse and inspire. Each is more confident in a moral venture if it has the other’s tacit support” 18. Walter Russell Mead also takes this approach in claiming the Anglo-American relationship is not a voluntary choice like a friendship between two people with similar tastes; it is more like the relationship between cousins in a family firm.
19 They can be annoyed with each other, and even temporarily estranged, but the family tie remains. The states have different views about how the company should be managed, and are each capable of trying to extract the maximum advantage in quiet but sometimes sharp competition with each other, but the prosperity and security of each remains tied to the health of the firm. In this way the specialness of the relationship is strengthened, and the source of said relationship is commonalities in the states’ structure, interests and priorities.
Therefore do the sources of specialness lie in the characterisations of the relationship? One of the earliest attempts to characterise the roles of said states was coined by Harold Macmillan speaking to Richard Crossman during their wartime service in Algiers in 1943.20 Macmillan likened Britain’s role in the relationship to that of the Greeks, providing wisdom and guidance to the emerging international powerhouse, the Americans, which he likened to the Romans.21
A second characterisation is provided by Kagan who identifies similarities between the states as the ‘glue’. He postulates that the Anglo-American relation is more willing to use force than the European powers, a key factor in drawing them together. He describes the Anglo-Americans as being from Mars, following a more Hobbesian approach to international relations, while the Europeans are from Venus, adopting a more Kantian methodology. 22
This analogy reinforces the idea of mutual continuity and ideology between Britain and America, an idea advocated by David Reynolds who mentions the existence of ‘mutual ideologies23’ a notion that begs for common values and conformities between the two states; for example both are liberal western democracies, sharing a common belief in the rule of law and the principle of peaceful change, especially in the 1940s. Besides this it proves very difficult to draw viable similarities, all that remains includes the migration of American television shows and food chains to Britain, and the cultural success of Britain in America. Hence, it could be claimed that it was the pragmatic elements of the states that gelled; linguistically for example, as Reynolds claims “..the common language permitted more extensive and more intensive communication than would otherwise have been possible”24.
Nevertheless is appears that more American culture has been adopted by the Britons, rather than the other way around- an idea vaguely reminiscent of Walter Russell Mead’s strongly opposed “instrumental mode” which implies for the relationship to exist Britain must constantly remain America’s subordinate in maintaining Britain’s best chance to exercise more global influence.
Mead also considers and negates the view that the relationship is a bewitching illusion, causing feckless British politicians to delude themselves into thinking that robotic conformity with American policy is in Britain’s best interest. In reality, this view holds that Americans will not pay a fair price for Britain’s support- is this the basis of the relationship and the main source of specialness? It could be assumed that the glue holding this relationship together is the very implication that at all times one state must be weaker than the other. Surely it cannot be, since far from enhancing Britain’s clout, the perception that London is Uncle Sam’s lapdog actually reduces Britain’s international prestige- and yet Britain continues ‘sit’ and ‘roll-over’ as commanded.
The close relationships of the leaders also comply to this theory, with critics suggesting that the Churchill-Roosevelt, Thatcher-Reagan or the duplicity of Blair-Clinton and then Blair-Bush, are all transient political conveniences which generally served the interests of the United States with Britain being a subservient partner. However, “important relations between any particular pair of leaders may be, accidents of leader personality compatibilities or clashes hardly are sufficiently enduring to provide a foundation for a “special relationship” between nations”.
25 Thus the term “source of specialness” implies no more than that some leaders get on well together and leaving a lasting impression; an idea so clichï¿½d in international relations as not to merit the label “special”. Ties between the leaders are necessarily ephemeral; to be special, a relationship between nations must be enduring- and in this case endurance, and hence the retention of ‘specialness’ involved the abdication of Britain. As is the belief for the future. America continues to grow, despite the recent financial crisis, the relationship still echo’s the idea of past-dependency.
It appears while there is a continual power disparity between the states, the stronger America becomes, the closer Britain will want to get, despite the accused irreconcilability by Mead26.
As the essay shows, the historical context is very significant, and for the future prospects- it is likely the two states will continue the relationship for the sake of tradition and public pressures. Secondly the idea of other special bilateral relationships- despite their existence, it is safe to say none can lay claim to the scope of the relations enjoyed by the Anglo-Americans, nor with the same levels of complex interdependence, nor is it likely that those relationships will prevail over Britain while America still has much use for its lapdog.
Thirdly, the concept of calculating specialness; while there are a very limited number of characteristics which could construct a subsequent ‘Anglo-America’, and it is unlikely the future holds an explicitly common zone, it could be perceived that the lack of common values and traits contribute to the strength of the relationship, with a diversity of opinions and ideas presented from two sides of the Atlantic. Finally the characteristics of the relationship- these traits could be depicted as the most important at present and for the future of the relationship. While it is highly criticised that the uneven power balance between the states leaves Britain a feudatory in the global arena, it is also a crucial factor in the maintenance of the lucid love affair, especially in the current global climate.
The principal source of specialness therefore lies in the worlds need for a powerful superhero- in this case America- and every good superhero needs a dependable, subordinate sidekick…
* Jeremy Black; The Politics of James Bond: From Fleming’s Novels to the Big Screen, Published by the University of Nebraska Press, 2005
* Kathleen Burke, Melvyn Stokes; The United States and the European Alliance since 1945, “Special Pleading” Alex Danchev, Berg. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 1999
* David Reynolds; From World War to Cold War: Churchill, Roosevely, and the international history of the 1940s, Published by Oxford University Press, 2006
* Dennis Austin; The Commonwealth and Britain, Published by Routledge, 1988
* Walter Russell Mead; God and Gold: Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World, Published by Knopf Publishing Group, 2008
* John Dumbrell; A Special Relationship; Anglo-American Relations in the Cold War and After; Published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2001
* Alex Danchev; On Specialness: Essays in Anglo-American Relations; Published by St. Martin’s Press, 1998
* Jay Jakub; ‘The Anglo-American “Special Relationship” in the Post-Cold War World: Much More
than Meets the Eye’, Defense Analysis, Volume 11, Number 3, December 1995
* Alex Danchev; On Specialness, International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944), Volume 72, No. 4, The Americas: European Security (Oct 1996), published by Blackwell Publishing
* Jon Meacham; Franklin and Winston; an intimate portrait of an epic friendship; Published by Random House, 2003
* Warren F. Kimball, The ‘Special’ Anglo-American Special Relationship ‘A Fatter, Larger Underwater Cable, Journal of Transatlantic Studies, Volume 3, Number 1, Spring 2005
* Dr. B Vivkeanandan; Whither the Anglo-American Special Relationship?; The Round Table, Number 316, October 1990
* Christopher Thorne; Allies of a Kind; Published by Hamish Hamilton, London, 1978
* Robert Kagan; Paradise and Power, Published by Atlantic Books, Great Britain, 2003
* British Perceptions of the Anglo-American Relationship ; Political Science Quarterly, Published by New York Press, 1993
1 Jeremy Black; The Politics of James Bond: From Fleming’s Novels to the Big Screen, Published by the University of Nebraska Press, 2005, pg. 143
2 Kathleen Burke, Melvyn Stokes; The United States and the European Alliance since 1945, “Special Pleading” Alex Danchev, Berg. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 1999. pg. 271.
3 David Reynolds; From World War to Cold War: Churchill, Roosevely, and the international history of the 1940s, Published by Oxford University Press, 2006, pg. 30
4 Dennis Austin; The Commonwealth and Britain, Published by Routledge, 1988, pg. 30
5 Walter Russell Mead; God and Gold: Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World, Published by Knopf Publishing Group, 2008
6 David Reynolds; From World War to Cold War: Churchill, Roosevely, and the international history of the 1940s, Published by Oxford University Press, 2006, pg. 313
7 David Reynolds; From World War to Cold War: Churchill, Roosevely, and the international history of the 1940s, Published by Oxford University Press, 2006, pg. 313
8 John Dumbrell; A Special Relationship; Anglo-American Relations in the Cold War and After; Published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2001, pg. 9
9 Alex Danchev; On Specialness: Essays in Anglo-American Relations; Published by St. Martin’s Press, 1998, pg. 8
10 Jay Jakub; ‘The Anglo-American “Special Relationship” in the Post-Cold War World: Much More
than Meets the Eye’, Defense Analysis, Volume 11, Number 3, December 1995, p. 319
11 John Dumbrell; A Special Relationship – Anglo-American Relations in the Cold War and After
Published in Great Britain: Macmillan Press, 2001, pg. 179
12 Alex Danchev; On Specialness: Essays in Anglo-American Relations; Published by St. Martin’s Press, 1998, pg. 153
13 Alex Danchev; On Specialness, International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944), Volume 72, No. 4, The Americas: European Security (Oct 1996), published by Blackwell Publishing, pg. 743
14 Jon Meacham; Franklin and Winston; an intimate portrait of an epic friendship; Published by Random House, 2003, pg. 18
15 John Dumbrell; A Special Relationship- Anglo-American Relations in the Cold War and After; 2nd Ed. Published by Palgrave, Macmillan 2006, pg. 19
16 Warren F. Kimball, The ‘Special’ Anglo-American Special Relationship ‘A Fatter, Larger Underwater Cable, Journal of Transatlantic Studies, Volume 3, Number 1, Spring 2005, pg 4
17 Alex Danchev; On Specialness: Essays in Anglo-American Relations; Published by St. Martin’s Press, 1998, pg. 154
18 Dr. B Vivkeanandan; Whither the Anglo-American Special Relationship?; The Round Table, Number 316, October 1990, pg. 370
19 Walter Russell Mead; God and Gold: Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World, Published by Knopf Publishing Group, 2008
20 John Baylis, Anglo-American Relations since 1939, Published by Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1997, pg. 12
21 Christopher Thorne; Allies of a Kind; Published by Hamish Hamilton, London, 1978, pg. 150
22 Robert Kagan; Paradise and Power, Published by Atlantic Books, Great Britain, 2003, pg. 3
23 David Reynolds; From World War to Cold War: Churchill, Roosevely, and the international history of the 1940s, Published by Oxford University Press, 2006, pg. 313
24 David Reynolds; From World War to Cold War: Churchill, Roosevely, and the international history of the 1940s, Published by Oxford University Press, 2006, pg. 314
25 British Perceptions of the Anglo-American Relationship; Political Science Quarterly, Published by New York Press, 1993, pg. 517
26 Walter Russell Mead; God and Gold: Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World, Published by Knopf Publishing Group, 2008