Consorting with deluded Belgians

On Specialness
June 5, 1998

The much vaunted Anglo-American "special relationship" is, Alex Danchev asserts, a will-o'-the-wisp. On Specialness represents, in effect, an exercise in "photographing fairies". Like the hero of Nick Willing's recent film, Danchev is concerned to capture the essence of the elusive spectre, both to confirm its existence to disbelievers but also to reveal its precise features. After all, those who have been most insistent on the existence of "specialness" have often simultaneously exhibited the most reluctance to scrutinise it. Thus Margaret Thatcher on the Anglo-American bond: "It is special. It just is. And that's that."

Not content to leave it at that, Danchev offers us a series of snapshots of the "special relationship" at key moments in its 20th-century development. They are mostly taken during the second world war and formative stages of the cold war, and usually depict the protagonists engaged in strategic or defence planning. Thus we find essays on the emergence of the wartime Combined Chiefs of Staff, the "saga of the second front", astute portraits of Field Marshall Sir John Dill and Sir Oliver Franks and meditations on the origins of Anglo-American defence co-operation and Nato in the late 1940s.

But such a bald summary does justice neither to the precision with which Danchev captures his subjects nor to the erudition of his ruminations on "specialness". Such musings underscore the volume as a whole, ensuring its success as more than simply a collection of independently instructive parts. Readers of The THES already familiar with Danchev as critic, if not with the rest of his oeuvre, will find in On Specialness the same engagingly eclectic range of reference, together with an unfailing eye for a succulent quotation and ear for an epigrammatic phrase.

Fittingly both components of the phrase "special relationship" are rich in ambiguity and metaphoric potential. Did "special" betoken an especial or merely a particular bond? Was the relationship essentially a familial one, past estrangement surmounted, or was it more in the nature of a friendship? Danchev eschews essentialism, proposing that the Anglo-American connection was not born special but had specialness thrust upon it, largely by the dictates of war. It took the cataclysm of the second world war to forge what was essentially a Pax anti-Germanica. Mutual (albeit lopsided) need and a common cause helped overcome the English tendency to patronise at best, disdain at worst, Americans as a species - or sub-species. Sharing more or less the same language did at least mean that British and American defence planners could actively disagree with, not simply misunderstand, one another. However, the smooth-running of the "special relationship", Danchev suggests, required the lubrication of particular trans-Atlantic friendships (most notably that between Oliver Franks, British ambassador to Washington from 1948-52, and secretary of state Dean Acheson).

Special friendships notwithstanding, the term "relationship" undoubtedly hints at something more. Frequently the liaison between London and Washington was indeed discussed (on this side of the Atlantic at least) in terms redolent of greater "specialness" and intimacy than mere friendship of either the Aristotelian or Platonic variety. Like many matches made in wartime, that between the Capitol and Westminster adjusted to postwar circumstances with difficulty, as the reciprocity of 1941-43 (the heyday of specialness) gave way to the asymmetry of the cold war Pax anti-Sovietica. All too often, the postwar tenor of British discourse was one of wounded amour propre. After the solemn wartime declarations, London sought greater exclusivity, permanence and openness to the arrangement than Washington would concede. The Americans seemed to want to disavow what Acheson termed their "common-law marriage", while Westminster wanted paper guarantees. (On the custody arrangements for the atomic bomb, for example, in Danchev's memorable phrase, London pressed for "no annihilation without representation.").

But although a queue of European suitors had now formed at the American door - and bigamy loomed - Washington was not keen on divorce, nor could Britain afford outright separation. It rankled, however, that America's flagging affection was kindled, quite literally, by base motives. Britain was to become "Air Strip One", in Orwell's formulation: its empire offering prime "strategically located real estate" for American staging-posts around the cold war world. This was love for those "incidental qualities" that Aristotle warns mark the inferior friendship, and it could not last.

Danchev, however, is sanguine. His voice certainly avoids the shrill chorus wailing that specialness is for life, not just for wartime. If Britons can no longer style themselves as the civilising Greeks to the American Romans, so be it. Britain itself has seen more special days. Lord Curzon foresaw as early as 1908 that without such attractive "real estate" as dowry, Britain's eligibility would wane, and "England would become a sort of glorified Belgium". "Britain is Belgium," concludes Danchev, "though the British do not know it yet." A special capacity for self-delusion remains.

Susan Carruthers is lecturer in international politics, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

On Specialness: Essays in Anglo-American Relations

Author - Alex Danchev
ISBN - 0 333 69997 1
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £42.50
Pages - 202

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