The UK-USA Special Relationship is Considerably More Important for America than for the UK

by Andrew Alexander
The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and may not be construed as in any way representative of the views or policies of Oxford Royale Summer Schools.

David Cameron and Barack Obama

It has long been fashionable to pretend that the Special Relationship between Great Britain and the United States is either completely imaginary or else entirely lop-sided in its importance to London as opposed to Washington. Neither of these positions is correct.

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The Anglo-American dialogue has always been cultural and financial, as well as political and militaristic. Taken as individual components, the dependence evinced by the latter two may wax and wane, yet the global impact of the economic and social relationship forged by the two Anglophone Great Powers is immense and will prove to be of pivotal importance to the ordering of global affairs in the years ahead.
Before detailing the manner in which the Special Relationship is effective and balanced, we should note why it is in the interests of politically prominent groups in both countries to pretend that it is not. Let us take America first. At times during the Obama presidency, the nation’s political class have gone to painful lengths to snub the British. The President set the tone with a thoughtless gift of bargain-bucket DVDs to Gordon Brown when he first met the latter, and his whole administration have followed that lead. Perhaps the anonymous State Department official speaking after a Gordon Brown visit in 2009 put the vogue attitude the best: “There’s nothing special about Britain. You’re just the same as the other 190 countries in the world. You shouldn’t expect special treatment.”

Image shows a US plane taking off from RAF Lakenheath.
RAF Lakenheath is one of around 20 US air bases in the UK.

This is transparently nonsense. Britain is the world’s sixth largest economy, the second largest Anglophone economy, America’s single largest trade partner, a UN Security Council Member, the single most important provider of airbases for the U.S. air force, home to the world’s greatest financial hub which is of pivotal importance to the solvency of the entire U.S. banking system, it is as militarily impregnable as it is possible for a modern state to be, the leading foreign provider of American cultural stimuli, and there is a considerable intellectual fellowship and exchange — Oxford University has produced as many U.S. presidents as California and, combined with the LSE, has provided more presidents than 38 of the 50 American states. Britain matters to America in a way that no other broadly allied nation comes close to matching – to argue that it is only as integral to the U.S. as the alliances with Micronesia, Togo or France is both fanciful and nonsensical in equal measure.
So why the pretence? In the context of the present administration, there are two broad reasons. The first is reasonably uncontroversial and has its roots in history. The American creation story is inextricably linked to its political culture, the defeat of the British in the revolutionary war is inextricably bound to American ideas of liberty, the entire constitutional system of the U.S.A. is still largely defined in opposition to Britain’s, and to admit even the smallest measure of dependence upon the UK jeopardises the domestic political narrative. As the British have never appeared remotely interested in such a concession, unlike the French whose national pride demands it, it is one which has never been offered. The second reason is far more sensitive. America is a racially mixed country with finely balanced racial politics. A significant proportion of the African-American community, particularly in the South, are conscious of Britain’s erstwhile role as a slaving power, and a significant proportion of the Irish-American population in the North are in the U.S.A. as a result of their forefathers fleeing Britain’s disastrous exercise in colonial rule in Ireland. While neither constituency harbours a great hatred of Britain, neither is averse to seeing it being put in its place occasionally – America’s instinct to err on the side of the slightly dismissive is strongly linked to this.
On the British side, the public have been treated to an unwavering determination to heap slavish admiration on the head of the President. Mr Obama’s “strength, moral authority and wisdom” has been the subject of many lovelorn speeches from his counterpart David Cameron. William Hague even went so far as to rebuke parliament after it voted down airstrikes on Syria, arguing, in effect, that unless Britain did everything which was asked of it immediately and without question, America would lose all respect for it as an independent power, a curious inversion of fact and reason.

Image shows the portrayal of the return visit of the Viceroy to the Maharaja of Cashmere by William Simpson, showing a carpet being spread out in front of the dignitaries.
The governing class of Britain has not changed much in the past 200 years.

The reasons for this, too, are deeply ingrained in British political culture. The endurance of a rigid and hierarchical class system in a country which is riddled with class envy and has an equal franchise is one of the more interesting phenomena of the modern age – the governing class in contemporary Britain would, with a few exceptions, have constituted the governing class also in 1913 and 1813. The tribute which is paid for the maintenance of such a system comes in the form of a deep self-deprecation and false humility. The British domestic scene thrives on such deceptions, and our foreign policy does likewise. The notion that Britain is a permanent supplicant to America allows British politicians to claim power without responsibility – they are obliged to agree with America for the national good, they are not influential enough, in the face of its monumental power and moral authority, to change its course. In other words, the conventional narrative of Anglo-American politics may be wrong, but it is deeply comforting for both sides within the confines of their existing political narratives.

Pivot from destiny

Image shows Edward Snowden.
Edward Snowden’s revelations showed, among other things, that Britain’s GCHQ was sharing huge amounts of data with the US National Security Agency.

When the Special Relationship is discussed, it is usually in diplomatic or political terms, the traditional prism through which the relationship is viewed. As Edward Snowdon’s leaks have proved, Anglo-American security cooperation is still a live concern, and the conjunction between American technology and British connections – particularly given a resident population to recruit from with links to countries with problems with political and religious extremism. It is unlikely that either nation would enjoy the surveillance scope it currently enjoys were it not in partnership. At the same time, the alleged use of phone-tapping techniques on Angela Merkel suggests that the U.S.A. is less sanguine about some of its other European partners than the rhetoric would suggest.
Leaving security aside, there is no doubt that America’s pivot to the East has altered all of its diplomatic relationships. President Obama’s decision to focus American diplomatic and military strength on the nations of Asia marks a quite profound change to the degree of America’s commitment to the region. In effect, America has become a guarantor of power in the South China Sea and the Pacific. This is a dangerous role, and one which America has not historically played with success. Since the evacuation of Hong Kong, Britain has consciously resiled from such a role – even in the Southern Pacific, Britain would not act to offer any comfort to New Zealand’s farmers who found their main export market gone overnight when Britain joined the EC. It was telling that neither George Osborne nor David Cameron used recent visits to China to remark on regional political disputes. The UK has consciously disengaged with the East, except as a source of infrastructure financing, at a time when the U.S.A. has deliberately involved itself in its regional politics.
Arguably this pivot runs against the course of history – America is a European nation by heritage and the political cultures of Europe and America, while markedly different, still speak to one another in the lingua franca of democracy, by no means a universal in Asia. Does it weaken the British alliance? Not necessarily.

Image shows bombed houses in Azaz, Syria.
Cameron’s motion for British military intervention in Syria was defeated 285-272 in August 2013.

The pivot towards Asia has cost America many friends. European nations, already preoccupied with their own financial crisis, have become more truculent where foreign policy is concerned. At the same time, America’s inability to influence events without significant foreign backing has been cruelly exposed in Syria with the withdrawal of the British and, with that, the one foreign policy constant for Anglo-Saxon nations – the evaporation of French will. American might without European support, connections and regional diplomatic ties doesn’t count for much, particularly with America consciously and publicly positioned towards the Pacific. In that context, the British relationship is as important as ever for America – without it, the U.S.A. is a Pacific power, not a global one.
This is not to say that the relationship is one-way. Britain’s foreign policy stance in the modern era owes much to the American position of ages past. By effort of will, its leaders deem Britain to be a world power and demand a world power’s influence over world affairs. At the same time they have neither the military muscle nor the sense of mission to intervene in world affairs except as an auxiliary part of a greater American-led force. British power in the modern era is largely the power to persuade the American colossus to direct its force in a certain direction. When that influence wanes, so too does Britain’s ability to project its will onto world affairs.
This situation is less important to Britain than the United States. All superpowers are sustained by a desire, conscious or unconscious, to spread and defend certain values beyond their territorial borders. An America which cannot defend the principles of democracy, pluralism and capitalism beyond its borders, which cannot wage the savage wars of peace which Kipling urged his forbearers to do, and which cannot offer the helpless a pax Americana, is a country with an identity crisis. By contrast, Britain’s global role now exists largely to amuse its politicians and has little or no practical effect on the wider country and the manner in which it perceives itself – even if it were to disappear entirely, the political class would amuse itself in the EU and the populace as a whole would feel possibly a slight relief at the end of the affair.

Connected by Cable

Image shows Blair and Bush shaking hands.
Tony Blair was criticised following the suggestion that he had prayed with Bush for guidance over the Iraq war, a news story that went unremarked in the US.

It is in the financial and cultural spheres that the importance of the Special Relationship resonates the most. Culturally, the two countries are bound at the hip. Digital culture has bridged the Atlantic in the manner which television never quite achieved. The predominant cultural dynamic of both countries – inherently Left-wing, hysterical, rights-focussed, atheistic – is similar in a manner that does not chime either with a more intellectual and considered Europe or the remainder of the Right-wing, macho Anglo-sphere. Both countries’ elites draw considerable intellectual stimulus from one another – the British importation of weepy, gee-shucks politics is no less a sign of cultural imbalance than America’s wholesale adoption of a progressive agenda in terms of abortion rights, the promotion of alternative sexual lifestyles, and racial guilt from Great Britain. The cultural exchange between the two nations strengthens the domestic dialogue of both at an elite level and is no less valuable in America than Britain in this sense.
More important than all of this is the link between the two nations through London’s financial markets. In terms of global transaction value, London shades New York in several key markets – currency (particularly Sterling-Dollar or Cable, and Dollar-Euro), structured finance, gold and precious metals, insurance – it thrashes it. Every large American bank has hedged itself through the London market and most continue the substantial part of their non-retail operations here. Leaving aside war with China or an earthquake in San Francisco, the single largest black-swan event with the capacity to destroy America as the country we know it as would be the complete collapse of the City of London. The consequences of Britain failing to properly regulate and, in the event of a crisis, provide liquidity to, the London market are unthinkable for America. For that reason, if no other, the Special Relationship will continue to be special from the American perspective.

Image shows union members marching against the sale of the Royal Mail.
There is an increasing move in the UK against private industry.

And from the British perspective? One of those thirty-year shifts which Jim Callaghan referred to when he came up against Margaret Thatcher appears to have occurred. The British political class have turned from private industry and private enterprise. The Britain of the future will be more collectivist, more dependent on large state interventions than at any time since the Iron Lady. From energy to infrastructure, private industry is now scorned in the public pronouncements of those who should know better. This does not sit well for the ongoing relationship with an America which is still nominally the home of the free market. Britain wants Chinese state investment, or that from sovereign wealth funds in the Middle East – the U.S. capital connection is increasingly a tenuous one outside of London’s gilded towers.
The Special Relationship is over-sentimentalised on the British side. Sentimentality is an emotion the British accord subjects of which they are no longer fond and about which they are no longer serious. Possibly this is the result of a change in the public discourse; perhaps it is a reaction to being told for so long that America cares not a damn in return. Given the links between the two, this is a move which will harm America as much, if not more, than Britain, and like many long-standing, comfortable and not particularly exciting relationships which come to a close through neglect rather than malice, both parties may soon find that they didn’t know what they had until it was gone.

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Image credits: banner; air base; Viceroy; Snowden; Syria; Blair and Bush; trade union.