Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The Special Relationship

The recent visit of the American President to the United Kingdom has highlighted a phrase that has been in common use since the 1980s when describing the relationship between Britain and America.  The term 'Special Relationship' has been bandied around the media as if it were something new.  It even went so far as calling it the 'Essential Relationship'!  So, do Britain and America have this 'Special Relationship' or is it some hype used to sell papers and highlight America?  Considering that the average British opinion of the United States has reached an all time low recently, is it propaganda to try and counter the wave of anti-American feelings?  American opinion of the British is at an all time high, probably as a result of Britain unconditionally assisting the US on their war on terror, but do they believe that there is a Special Relationship between our two countries?

If we delve back in time, you begin to wonder why the British government believes we have a Special Relationship with the United States.  The US has been instrumental in the numerous financial problems facing Britain since the end of the Second World War.  So, how do historical events support this proclamation of a Special Relationship?

At the end of the 19th century, Britain was the major Superpower in the world.  It had the largest empire in history and was wealthy beyond belief.  The world trade was controlled by London and they could make or break countries by a single word.  The First World War was the beginning of the end of the British Empire and the cost in men and materiel weakened Britain and its empire.  By the time of the Second World War, Britain was struggling in its fight against Nazi Germany.  America had staunchly declared its neutrality in this war, President Wilson successfully argued against intervention leaving Britain to fight alone.

There are numerous possible reasons why America joined the Second World War on the side of Britain.  This may come as a shock, but America was undecided about which side to support.  The sinking of several ships carrying American citizens (after Hitler promised not to target ships carrying Americans) and the fact that Britain and France owed a substantial amount of money to the United States may have been enough to tilt opinion on the side of the British, but the fact that America needed Britains influence around the world for trade was possibly the deciding factor.

But it wasn't free.

Britain had to pay for the help from the United States.  It was hoped that because of the amicable relationship between Churchill and the American President that favourable terms would be agreed, such as a grant or a gift.  Instead America offered a loan at 2% interest.  The loan was for $4.33 Billion ($53 Billion at todays prices).  This loan was finally paid off in 2006.  One of the conditions of the loan was the convertibility of Sterling and this was the most damaging thing that America could have done to Britain (a long and complicated story).  So, no support here for the Special Relationship!

The World War did see the closest military alliance in the history of the world.  This wartime experience did continue after the war with Britain and America sharing a partnership, although Britain was considered the junior partner.  America benefitted from the connections of the British Empire, ironic considering that America had spent a great deal of effort trying to dismantle it.  America, however, had its own agenda and wanted Britain to be instrumental in the creation of a united Europe.  The simplistic view of this can be that of security, America wanted a barrier between itself and the USSR, but America also wanted to use its influence in Europe through Britain, guiding Europe to adopt US policies.  However, Britain refused to be used in this manner arguing that British interests were worldwide and not solely in Europe.

So, still no sign of this Special Relationship.

During the war, European scientists made a breakthrough in the use of atomic fission.  Britain wrote a secret report about how an atomic bomb could be made and shared this information with America.  Scientists from both countries worked on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, but the Americans refused to share the technology needed to actually make the bomb!  In 1946 the US passed the McMahon Act forbidding the sharing of any information about atomic technology, even to the British who had given them the know-how to actually make the bomb!  In response to this, the British decided to make her own atomic bombs, led by William Penny who had worked with the Americans at Los Alamos.  Ironically, although the Americans clamped down on the sharing of atomic technology, it was an American that passed the details onto the USSR enabling them to create their own bomb.

Definitely no Special Relationship there.

It wasn't until some years later, after Britain had proved that it had its own atomic ability did the US agree to resume nuclear relations.

The Suez crisis of 1956 saw Britain and America on opposite sides.  When Britain attacked Egypt (as a result of Nasser nationalising the Suez Canal) along with France and Israel, Americas reaction was severe.  As well as not assisting the British, the US sent the sixth fleet to the Mediterranean to sit alongside the British fleet, telling the whole world that the US was opposed to the British action.  This resulted in the value of Sterling plummeting and the US even blocked Britain from drawing her legal drawing from the IMF.  This resulted in humiliation for the British, a financial crisis and the refusal of the American Presiden, Eisenhower, to speak with the British Prime Minister.

Sounds like a cold relationship now.

This debacle was a wake up call to the British.  No longer did they have the ability to project their influence in the world, at least without the help of the Americans.  For a country that had ruled the world for centuries, this was a very bitter pill to swallow.  This open slap in the face and Britains inability to protects its empire paved the way to them joining the European Union in 1961.  Britain was in bad shape, its economic growth was microscopic and its standing in the international community was at an all time low.  America had, in essence, sundered what was left of Britains empire.  This act would return to bite America.

By the mid 70s, Britians economy was in tatters, her armed forces continued to be cut and the left wing of the Labour Party was becoming a real contender for power in the government.  This was not good news for the Americans.  A left wing Labour government would certainly be anti-American and with good reason.  If that happened, they could have insisted of the removal of all US personnel from the bases in Britain, withdraw from NATO and, possibly, become anti-nuclear.  This could have easily paved the way for a communist Britain, something that America was terrified of.  It was during this time that America saw Germany as its primary ally in Europe.  With the loss of the empire and its numerous financial crises', the attraction of Britain as a primary ally were bleak.

America, for so long the most vocal in its disapprobation of the British Empire, had now lost its own ability to projects its influence.  Not only that, with the withdrawal of the British from its colonies, it paved the way for the vacuum to be filled by communism.  I wonder if the American government ever regretted its actions against Britain?  The fall of the British empire certainly didn't help them and their continued efforts to control Britain always failed leading to a once prosperous country become destitute and in trouble of becoming ripe for the influence of communism.

It wasn't until Mrs. Thatcher became Prime Minister did the relationship between Britain and America begin to blossom.  It has been said that Mrs. Thatcher and President Reagan were ideological soulmates. They also got along famously, a British satire programme 'Spitting Image' would often depict them in bed together.  This was the first sign of a Special Relationship.

It was during this period that the relationship between the two countries began to come together again.  The friendships between British and American diplomatic officials as well as the heads of state lead to an increase in confidence with each other.  The outcome of the Falklands war, a complicated and difficult accomplishment considering the logistics and coordination involved, not only showed the world that Britain could establish its will half a world away, but also instilled confidence in the British armed forces that had, until the war, been steadily reduced.  The outcome was never considered cut and dry by the Americans who were pondering over which side they should have supported (America needing its links into South America through Argentina).

The friendship and respect between the diplomatic communities of both countries has continued to grow.  The close links between the military and intelligence organisations has become inseparable.

Having spent over 22 years in the British Army, I have constantly worked closely with my American counterparts.  The Americans have excellent technology but the British have hundreds of years of experience fighting ground wars and counter insurgency operations.  Together, with American technology and British know how, the armed forces of the two countries have worked well together.  Not only is there trust between them, but also mutual respect.  The intelligence community, although they have their differences, have worked closely together sharing information that is not shared with anyone else within the NATO alliance.  America has come to rely upon the support of the British and the British have never stinted in their support.

After 9/11, there was the risk that America would become xenophobic.  When you look at the number of Americans that have actually left America on their travels, you can understand why.  The public support by the British may have been influential in the American view of the world.  Hell, most of the world were behind America after that atrocious attack as there were not only Americans killed when the towers were hit.  But it was Britain that unreservedly supported America in her War on Terror campaign and still do to this day.

America and Britain have a unique relationship, that cannot be denied.  I am sure that America has unique relationships with other countries as well.  We cannot be naive enough to think that Britain alone has a 'Special' relationship with America.  How does America view the relationship?  I can't answer that, having never been American, but, as a member of the British Armed Forces visiting America on holiday, all I can say is that the Americans treat us better than our own society does.  For that, Britain should be ashamed of itself.

Every country has its own national agenda supporting what the government at the time believes is best for its citizens.  At the moment, we share a very good relationship with America and I hope it lasts forever.  Not so many years ago, it was joked that Britain would become an American State because of our unreserved support.  Maybe we do have a Special Relationship, but if we do, it is based on a very rocky past.  For now, lets enjoy the benefits (even if it does mean I cannot live in America as I planned to!).

I have to end this piece with thanks to Professor Kathleen Burk for her excellent piece 'Anglo-American Relations: Where we are, and how we got here. '  I would recommend watching the video and understanding in much more detail how our relationship has been.  I have added my views and experience, she is an expert!

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