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The end of our 'special relationship' with Britain
After decades of playing second fiddle to the U.S., Britain, like other U.S. allies, is prepared to chart a more independent course. It's about time.
Daniel Larison
Daniel Larison
A

British parliamentary committee has reported that the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States is over. It is tempting to dwell on the responsibility of President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair for having brought this about, but the end of the “special” relationship is actually very good news for both countries. Having been abused past the breaking point before and during the Iraq war, the U.S.-British relationship was bound to change, and the only regret either nation should have now is that the change did not come sooner when it might have done more good.

The way is now clear for building a balanced, reciprocal relationship based on shared interests rather than sentimental attachments, reflexive support, or nostalgia for a Roosevelt-Churchill or Reagan-Thatcher partnership. 

In practice, the “special relationship” has for several decades meant that Britain endorses and aids U.S. efforts and military actions abroad while it receives little or nothing in exchange. Until the end of the Cold War, a close connection with America was useful to Britain. It helped offset Britain’s international decline while strengthening its position in Europe, where Britain worked to prevent any single power from dominating the Continent. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the peaceful reunification of Germany, and the increasing consolidation of the European Union, these concerns grew anachronistic. Like other alliances defined by the crucibles of WW II and the Cold War, the “special relationship” has lost its old purpose while the “Global War on Terror” has failed to supply a new one.  

Britain’s constancy has allowed Washington to take its support for granted.

In turn, Britain’s automatic support has enabled Washington to behave abroad far more recklessly than it could feasibly have done all on its own. It is much harder to imagine an American domestic political consensus in support of the Iraq war had Britain not supported it, and Britain’s absence from any "coalition of the willing" would have engendered greater opposition to the invasion from European governments. 

On the other hand, had Britain been a more reluctant ally, it might have dissuaded the previous administration from making its worst decision, saving years of needless warfare and loss. That would have been best for America, but it would have served Britain’s cause as well. As the committee report explained, Britain’s close identification with reckless U.S. actions has harmed British interests elsewhere in the world.

If the Iraq war confirmed that the “special relationship” had gone horribly awry, the recent controversy over the Falkland Islands was in some respects the last straw.  Britain has long resented U.S. neutrality in Britain’s territorial dispute with Argentina. But when Secretary of State Clinton recently expressed support for negotiations over the status of the territory, it appeared that neutrality had morphed into back-stabbing opposition. Clinton’s comment may have stemmed more from clumsiness than policy—until sheep become strategic assets the Falklands will remain a low priority at the State Department. But for Britain, the episode encapsulated the one-sided nature of the relationship.   

Whoever forms Britain’s next government following the general election this spring will almost certainly be less deferential. That is a consequence of international politics in general as well as Iraq in particular. Economic growth and democratization have spawned a new generation of rising powers with increasingly assertive and independent foreign policies. In navigating this new terrain, longtime U.S. allies such as Japan and Turkey will exercise greater independence and flexibility. We should expect the same from Britain.

David Cameron, Britain’s Conservative leader and potentially its next prime minister, will likely chart a more independent course than his predecessors. His support for the Iraq war and his appointment of a “pro-American” (and Euroskeptic) shadow foreign secretary, William Hague, notwithstanding, he has repeatedly articulated the view that critical allies make better allies. “We will serve neither our own, nor America’s, nor the world’s interests, if we are seen as American’s unconditional associate in every endeavor,” he said. What’s more, it appears that all three major British parties share this view. So no matter who comes out of the election on top, a more critical, independent ally across the ocean appears all but certain. Friends change. Washington will just have to adjust.

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