A special relationship in jeopardy?

Anglo-American cooperation has underpinned western power for decades, but now the twin spectres of Brexit and Trump are threatening to push this 'special relationship' into unfamiliar territory.

Oliver Guerrero
8 November 2016
Gerald Herbert AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

The future of US-UK relations? Prominent leave campaigner Nigel Farage speaks at a rally for Donald Trump in August. Gerald Herbert AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.There has been a strong tendency among British policymakers to view US-UK relations through a sentimental lens. Typically, the imagery of the ‘special’ relationship conjures up a shared Anglo-American heritage of language, history and the rule of law. It also evokes the image of shared wartime struggle and long-lasting military and intelligence cooperation under the leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Yet US policymakers take on a noticeably less sentimental understanding of US-UK relations, perhaps best described by former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who once wrote “of course a unique relation existed between Britain and America … But unique did not mean affectionate.” 

President Obama’s interventions during the UK’s recent EU referendum served as a stark reminder of how the United States perceives its relationship with Britain. Although the common bonds of history and language are undeniable, US policy towards Britain has always been grounded in rational political interest. Indeed, Obama’s comments made it clear that the weight the US assigns to Britain as a global player depends in large measure on its membership of the European Union, stating as he did during a Downing Street press conference, that the UK’s membership “keeps the EU open, outward looking, and closely linked to its allies on the other side of the Atlantic.” Moreover, Obama linked a British withdrawal from the EU with wider concerns around international security: “if you start seeing divisions in Europe, that weakens NATO, that will have an impact on our collective security.”
US policy towards Britain has always been grounded in rational political interest 

For the US, Britain’s strategic importance as an ally has been its ability to project an Atlanticist outlook. Fundamental to this viewpoint is the need for close military, political and economic cooperation between the EU and the US. Since the end of the second world war, American policy has actively promoted European integration as a means of strengthening US global influence and power. Post-war administrations projected American economic influence with the introduction of the Marshall Plan, which effectively promoted free-market capitalism throughout western Europe. Additionally, the establishment of NATO as the essential source of transatlantic defence cooperation ensured that European defence interests would be closely entwined with those of America.

Of course, the level of enthusiasm for European integration has varied according to the administration in power, with the idea receiving less support from the administrations of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. For the most part, however, post-war US administrations since that of Harry Truman have viewed a unified and prosperous Europe, alongside NATO, as a key part of the global architecture of western power, free markets and liberal democracy.  

Recognising the post-war reality of Britain’s reduced global influence and American primacy, British policymakers sought to maintain Britain’s role as a great power. Prime ministers from Churchill to Harold Macmillan accepted that the pursuit of British foreign policy objectives required close cooperation with the US alongside supporting the American policy of further European integration. The best, or indeed, the only strategic position left to maximise Britain’s influence in this post-war scenario was to act as a ‘transatlantic bridge’ between the US and Europe — as a mediator that would resolve political differences within the western world. 

Undoubtedly, the US-UK relationship has always recalibrated according to policy differences over flash-points such as the Suez Crisis, Vietnam War, invasion of Iraq, and the stillborn Syria intervention. It has also readjusted with different leaders: the relationships of Harold Macmillan and John F. Kennedy, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and Tony Blair and George W. Bush were notably warmer than those of Harold Wilson and Lyndon B. Johnson, Edward Heath and Richard Nixon, and John Major and Bill Clinton. However, the fundamental dynamic of British engagement with Europe and support for American global power has been a continuous feature of British policy since the end of the second world war.

There are still no clear signs of how either a Clinton or Trump administration would view Britain as an international player, post-Brexit 

Therefore the UK’s decision to leave the EU is naturally a cause for concern for American policymakers. British withdrawal has the potential to weaken US global influence by increasing the fractures within its largest trading partner. This major development only adds to US anxieties over signs of increasing ruptures over the management of the Euro crisis and the ongoing migration crisis. Crucially, divisions amongst key strategic allies of the US also undermine its power within the larger global context — specifically, the emergence of Russia and China as major regional and international players. For the United States, these are all alarming signs of the weakening post-war global framework that supports American power and influence in the world. 

How the next chapter of US-UK relations will unfold remains to be seen. While President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have publicly reaffirmed the importance of the ‘special relationship’, the reality is much more complex. This relationship has already been strained in the wake of the referendum, particularly with the appointment of controversial Leave campaigner Boris Johnson as UK Foreign Secretary. Johnson’s previous attacks on President Obama and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton have left a sour taste in Washington, and as a result, his appointment has been met with a combination of amusement and irritation. Added to this are the uncertainties of the 2016 US presidential election. As of yet, there are still no clear signs of how either a Clinton or Trump administration would view Britain as an international player, post-Brexit.

While Britain remains an important ally of the United States, its role as a transatlantic interlocutor will inevitably shift, and most likely decline, as a result of Brexit. Following the result, the US is likely to seek out closer cooperation with other key European powers such as Germany and France, most probably at the expense of its relations with Britain. This means that as British policymakers attempt the process of forging a different relationship with Europe, they must also prepare to forge a different relationship with the United States. 

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