Category Archives: special relationship

Theresa May and the delusion of a special relationship

Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, has arrived in the US to be the first foreign leader to meet President Trump, and she sounded as if she was in optimistic form, suggesting that “opposites attract”.  The visit has caused a resurgence of hope in Britain that the much vaunted “Special Relationship” is back in vogue.  In Britain, the term “special relationship” refers to what is believed to be a unique partnership between the two English-speaking powers of Britain and its old colonies across the Atlantic. 

The problem is that Britain is rather more devoted to the idea than the United States.  Whilst the new president undoubtedly has some anglophilic tendencies – he is, for example, restoring the bust of Winston Churchill to the Oval Office, and speaks positively about the British vote to leave the EU – the British prime minister should tread warily.  Mr. Trump himself is quite clear in his commitment to “America First” – it dominated the thinking in his inauguration speech – but British prime ministers have always tended to be a little disappointed by their attempted diplomatic embrace with the much bigger power overseas.  Whether President Trump breaks the decidedly one-sided nature of the relationship remains to be seen, but if the actions of past presidents are anything to go by this may be one area at least where he is well in vogue with his predecessors.

Since the time of Franklin Roosevelt and the expansion of American power consequent upon the Second World War the British, for all their desperate flirting, have often been left in the cold with occasionally just enough acting paint to hide the tears.  Here is a brief history of the not-so-special-relationship that Theresa May is hoping to reignite.

Roosevelt and Churchill.
This is where it was meant to have started. FDR moved heaven and earth to get US aid to brave little Britain, and he and Churchill bestrode the post-war world stage like conquering colossi joined at the hip. Yes?

Er, well not quite. Roosevelt was a thoroughly reluctant interventionist. He gave short shrift to the pro-interventionist Century Group, deferring instead to advisers like Sumner Welles, who in January 1940 was still determined to get Hitler and Mussolini to talk peace. When help did come, Roosevelt extracted everything he could from Britain and then tried to make sure the Atlantic War was firmly eastern focused, which suited American interests better. Neville Chamberlain had always believed that the cost of American help would be too high – he wasn’t wrong. Military bases, trading concessions and considerable regional influence was all ceded to the USA. The Roosevelt-Churchill relationship existed mainly in the mind of Churchill himself, who did so much to propagate it. Which is surprising, given the way FDR himself sought to undermine Churchill in front of Stalin at Yalta.

Truman and Attlee
Attlee didn’t speak much anyway, but his Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin did, and it was Bevin who felt so downtrodden by Truman’s Secretary of State that he advocated British ownership of nuclear weapons, if only so that “no foreign secretary gets spoken to by an American Secretary of State like that again”. It was another Truman Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, who caustically remarked that “Britain has lost an empire but not yet found a role”. Thanks for the support Dean.


Eisenhower
One word really. Suez. When Anthony Eden tried to protect British interests in the Suez Canal, Eisenhower was the first and most important statesman out of the blocks to condemn him. And then begin a run on the pound. Never mind that Khrushchev was slaughtering Hungarian rebels at the time – Britain was Enemy No. 1! Oh, and lest we forget, it was Eisenhower as US Supreme Commander who stymied Churchill and Montgomery’s plan to beat the Russians to Berlin. He didn’t believe the Russians posed a threat and decried Churchill’s pleas to the contrary.

Nixon and Heath
Possibly the only really effective working relationship between a US President and a British Prime minister, because it was based on an understanding that there wasn’t actually a Special Relationship at all. Both Heath and Nixon believed that America’s real focus in Europe was never going to be a single country, but a united European organization. Nixon, in any case, was very clearly identifying the East as the true arena for US activity.

Reagan and Thatcher
This is where it’s meant to really go into overdrive. If the lovebirds Maggie and Ron didn’t have a special relationship, then who did? But, alas, for all their cooing to each other in public, Reagan not only proved notoriously slow to throw support behind Britain in the Falklands crisis, but then didn’t let Thatcher know when he invaded the Commonwealth country of Grenada. Britain had to content herself by joining 108 other nations in condemning the invasion at the UN. Tellingly, Reagan later recollected than when Thatcher phoned him to say he shouldn’t go ahead, "She was very adamant and continued to insist that we cancel our landings on Grenada. I couldn't tell her that it had already begun." Special Relationship indeed.

Bush and Blair
No world leader was more determined to show his support for the US than Tony Blair. No other world leader was greeted familiarly as “Yo, Blair”. But for all the support he gave to George W. Bush’s strategy of middle east invasion, Blair’s voice was heard as tinnily as anyone else’s when it came to trying to influence US foreign policy. It was one of the supreme, defining failures of his premiership.
Obama and Cameron
They played table tennis and cooked burgers together, but when it came to an alignment of interests there was precious little empathy.  President Obama famously noted that Britain would be “at the back of the queue” when it came to negotiating new trade agreements after a Brexit vote, and he was very critical of Cameron’s role in foreign policy.  Obama believed Cameron was wrong on Libya and stymied his own efforts in Syria when the British PM allowed parliament to vote against intervention. 

Theresa May, then, is following in a grand tradition of trying to re-start a special relationship that has never got past the warm-up phase.  She might be lucky.  President Trump will be in the business of surprising everyone over the next four years and he might just take a different tack on this one too.  But don’t bet on it.  Realpolitic will be as important to him as his predecessors, and by that principle Britain is just another pygmy, albeit one with a common language. 


That Special Relationship – or not

I have blogged before on the one-sided nature of America and Britain's alleged "special relationship".  With President Obama's visit this week, it has once more come under the spotlight, with the president and David Cameron using the phrase many times during their press conference.  Others - notably Brexiters - have been decidedly sniffy about the relationship, while for the president himself it has been clear that he enjoys visiting members of the royal family if nothing else.

As to where it really stands in a modern world of powerful regional unions and multi-country trading alliances, it probably isn't a surprise to learn that strong though the emotional resonance may be, the reality is not terribly significant.  Michael Crowley on Politico analyses where the special relationship stands today, and suggests that other European countries (quelle surprise) such as France and Germany enjoy a more influential role than the one-time ruler of the thirteen colonies.  But Obama does love the Queen.

MPs forget how uninterested America is in Britain


Bless them.  MPs gathered in numbers not usually seen for debates to discuss the pressing issue of whether Donald Trump, who hasn't got any immediate plans to visit Britain, should be banned just in case he ever does.  As they earnestly debated the ins and outs of an essentially trivial petition, you almost felt that they believed America was watching and listening.  The full range of faux outrage was on display, with one MP dramatically declaring that Donald Trump had insulted her personally.

Oh dear.  Never mind the fact that this debate effectively took Trump at his own valuation.  Never mind that MPs were debating something they themselves couldn't actually affect (the power to ban is the Home Secretary's).  Never mind that there must have been 101 other ways for MPs to spend their time that might actually have had an impact on their constituents.  The key thing about this debate was the continued suffering British politicians have that somehow, in a mind somewhere across the Atlantic, Britain actually matters.

She doesn't, and hasn't since 1812 when British troops burned down the executive mansion in a sort of last hurrah.  The Americans repainted it and had a place they could now call the White House, which was nice.  But the feeling in Britain, ever since America started becoming the No 1 Nation, has long been that somehow we are tied together in a uniquely special relationship.  Alas, reality shows us a rather different picture, as a quick historical gander through the distinctly unspecial relationship will show.  Here are its principal lowlights, which I set out some time ago, when David Cameron was in the first throes of his infatuation with Barack Obama.

Roosevelt and Churchill.
This is where it was meant to have started. FDR moved heaven and earth to get US aid to brave little Britain, and he and Churchill bestrode the post-war world stage like conquering colossi joined at the hip. Yes?

Er, well not quite. Roosevelt was a thoroughly reluctant interventionist. He gave short shrift to the pro-interventionist Century Group, deferring instead to advisers like Sumner Welles, who in January 1940 was still determined to get Hitler and Mussolini to talk peace. When help did come, Roosevelt extracted everything he could from Britain and then tried to make sure the Atlantic War was firmly eastern focused, which suited American interests better. Neville Chamberlain had always believed that the cost of American help would be too high – he wasn’t wrong. Military bases, trading concessions and considerable regional influence was all ceded to the USA. The Roosevelt-Churchill relationship existed mainly in the mind of Churchill himself, who did so much to propagate it. Which is surprising, given the way FDR himself sought to undermine Churchill in front of Stalin at Yalta.

Truman and Attlee
Well, Attlee didn’t speak much anyway, but his Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin did, and it was Bevin who felt so downtrodden by Truman’s Secretary of State that he advocated British ownership of nuclear weapons, if only so that “no foreign secretary gets spoken to by an American Secretary of State like that again”. It was another Truman Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, who caustically remarked that “Britain has lost an empire but not yet found a role”. Thanks for the support Dean.

Eisenhower
One word really. Suez. When Anthony Eden tried to protect British interests in the Suez Canal, Eisenhower was the first and most important statesman out of the blocks to condemn him. And then begin a run on the pound. Never mind that Khrushchev was slaughtering Hungarian rebels at the time – Britain was Enemy No. 1! Oh, and lest we forget, it was Eisenhower as US Supreme Commander who stymied Churchill and Montgomery’s plan to beat the Russians to Berlin. The Russians weren’t a threat you see.

Nixon and Heath
Possibly the only really effective working relationship between a US President and a British Prime minister, because it was based on an understanding that there wasn’t actually a Special Relationship at all. Both Heath and Nixon believed that America’s real focus in Europe was never going to be a single country, but a united European organization. Nixon, in any case, was very clearly identifying the East as the true arena for US activity.

Reagan and Thatcher
This is where it’s meant to really go into overdrive. If the lovebirds Maggie and Ron didn’t have a special relationship, then who did? But, alas, for all their cooing to each other in public, Reagan not only proved notoriously slow to throw support behind Britain in the Falklands crisis, but then didn’t let Thatcher know when he invaded the Commonwealth country of Grenada. Britain had to content herself by joining 108 other nations in condemning the invasion at the UN. Tellingly, Reagan later recollected than when Thatcher phoned him to say he shouldn’t go ahead, "She was very adamant and continued to insist that we cancel our landings on Grenada. I couldn't tell her that it had already begun." Special Relationship indeed.

Bush and Blair
No world leader was more determined to show his support for the US than Tony Blair. No other world leader was greeted familiarly as “Yo, Blair”. But for all the support he gave to George W. Bush’s strategy of middle east invasion, Blair’s voice was heard as tinnily as anyone else’s when it came to trying to influence US foreign policy. It was one of the supreme, defining failures of his premiership.