A yoke that's wearing thin

December 6, 1996

The link may go back a long way but Britain protests too much about its 'special relationship' with the United States, says Kathleen Burk.

Anglo-American relations have attracted an incrustation of sentiment unequalled in the annals of inter-state relations. The myth is of governments stretching hands across the sea, each the other's best and most dependable friend.

This notion is flatly contradicted by relations between the governments of Bill Clinton and John Major. First came the Home Office's helpful attempts in 1992 to find damning evidence on candidate Clinton's activities at Oxford for the benefit of then-president Republican George Bush. Since then there have been repeated clashes of interest. Yet there is enough in the special relationship myth for it to be plausible.

Cultural connections are innumerable. There is history: the United States was the child of Great Britain, which bequeathed language, literature, common law, and a political model against which the US designed its own system. The common root of both legal systems - innocent until proven guilty, an adversarial approach in court, habeas corpus - means that the legal professions look to each other. Financial, literary and publishing worlds straddle the Atlantic. The academic links go without saying, as brains drain back and forth across the Atlantic. Americans are more likely to visit Britain when they go abroad than any other country, while the British flock to Florida, New York and California. There is popular culture: Britain sent The Beatles to the US, and the US in turn sent Bruce Springsteen to Britain. And then there is Hollywood.

All of this provides a resonance, a network of contacts, reference points. Neither country is strange to the other, though the less one knows, the more alike they seem. But in comparison to other countries, they are alike. The British look to the state for regulation, guidance and help much more than do the Americans, but compared to Germany or France the hand of the state lies lightly. Both US and British elections are first past the post. Coalitions, the norm on the continent, are wartime constructs in Britain and non-existent in the US.

A mutually beneficial relationship still exists in foreign policy. The US has worldwide responsibilities, while Britain has at least world-wide interests: each needs someone to talk to. If the US requires well-trained troops, backed up by an experienced diplomatic corps, it turns to Britain, the Gulf war springs to mind. If Britain needs international support, it turns to the US, and here the Falklands springs to mind, unless, of course, the US is the problem.

Yet, in the past, these multiple links have made USrelations with Britain more complicated than with other powers. The war of independence, conflicts over Canada, and immigrants, such as the Irish, hostile to Britain were balanced by a common belief in free trade, links between social reformers, and shared language, literature and marriages.

The special nature of the relationship arises from the unprecedented transferral of power from one great power to another without being forced to it by defeat in battle, a shift dictated by profound change in their relative economic strengths.

In 1900, Britain was the supreme international power, with an empire on which the sun never set, the largest navy in the world, and the most advanced financial system in the world to support it. The US was large, and increasingly an economic and financial powerhouse. It was also an imperial power, although on a much smaller scale than Britain, with a substantial merchant marine and a growing navy. But it was not a great power: it had resources, but lacked a sustained will to power.

Decline and rise are not linked in any simple causal manner. Britain protected the US during the 19th century, even if not for altruistic motives. In the first world war, Britain encouraged the US to assume the role of a great power, although it hoped it would be a role subordinate to its own. During the inter-war period the two countries competed and cooperated in varying measure. It was not until the second world war and after that the US finally acted as the dominant power, in its turn protecting the weaker power. Where there has been conflict in policy areas, Britain has been forced to compromise under pressure of US financial or economic power.

Britain encouraged the US to assume these international responsibilities: it believed that the US shared its view of the world and that USpower would normally support British interests. But it is easier to share power, or even resign it to another, if you believe that both parties are working towards similar goals.

Yet in 1900, if Americans beyond the eastern seaboard thought about Britain at all, it was as a vaguely hostile country. What has always been required to bring them together was a common enemy - currently they lack a credible common threat, and the relationship has cooled accordingly.

The crucial event which brought them together was the first world war; what cemented the relationship was the second. Its ally in both wars, the US supplied indispensable aid to Britain. But even within this unusually close relationship, there has been a consistent tension. Britain strove to yoke US power to British policies, while the US repeatedly struggled against its power being so manipulated, and strove in turn to tie British power to US interests.

Beginning in 1917, the Americans increasingly believed that they, not the British, should set the international economic agenda: by 1941 the American use of the financial weapon to enforce this would be, from Britain's viewpoint, merciless. Britain had to promise to abandon policies adopted to safeguard her economy and her trade, policies which the US saw as damaging to its own interests. For the Americans, this gave their own businessmen a level playing field; for the British, this opened their markets to US dominance. But they had little choice.

The wartime period is complicated. There has never been as close an alliance, and until mid-1943, when US military power came into full force, the relationship was not unequal: during 1941-42 Britain had more forces in the field, as well as dominating intelligence decryption. But the US increasingly took decisions that best served its own interests. This, of course, is what states do, what Britain had done in its days of power, and would continue to try to do. But the British belief persisted that Anglo-American relations should be different.

Yet wartime experience generated the idea of the special relationship. And for a decade, it was probably the case. The US and Britain did broadly feel that they were a partnership, albeit with a senior and a junior partner. The US knew that it could not fight the Soviet Union alone, and Britain was its major ally. But Britain lacked the economic strength to act as a great power. However, the belief of all party front benches, that Britain had to remain a great power or would sink to the level of Holland, ensured a consensus in favour of defence spending. This included financing the development and manufacture of an atom and then a hydrogen bomb. These served as defence against both enemies and friends. British governments believed that if they did not possess the bomb, the US would soon cease to take account of British interests.

Everything came home to roost in the Suez crisis of 1956. Britain, in cahoots with France and Israel, attacked Egypt against the wishes of the US, which reacted in a ferocious fashion, refusing to supply oil or to help support sterling. Suez demonstrated Britain's limited scope for independent action. Lacking economic strength, Britain could never again mount a serious military initiative without at least the acquiescence of the US.

Yet geopolitical necessity ensured rapid reconciliation. The relationship soon acquired new ties, as the US decided to cooperate with Britain over nuclear matters. If there is a continuing special relationship between the two governments, it is based on nuclear and intelligence relations.

Nevertheless, for Britain to claim too publicly and too urgently its closeness to the US only underlines its weakness. Strong countries do not need to make such claims: they get what they want without them.

Kathleen Burk is professor of modern and contemporary history, University College London. This essay is based on her inaugural lecture in October.

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