It would appear as if the Special Relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom is in jeopardy. The two nations were once bound together by shared ideas for the future and about how the world works. Now, politicians in the US see the UK as either useless or a backwards nation, going a different direction than the rest of the world. In recent years, the concept of the Special Relationship has been relegated to the academic realm, where it is debated by PhDs with little real world consequence. Today’s circumstances, however, allow for a real and useful discussion of the future of the Special Relationship. The United Kingdom, for the first time in nearly half a century, is charting its own course. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been tasked with finding a new direction and purpose for a United Kingdom independent from the rest of Europe. A close relationship between the US and UK would strengthen the global standing of both nations and promote the ideals that both nations stand for.
The Special Relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom is one of the closest alliances in history. After many years of antipathy between the nations, they began to see each other as friends in the 1890s. It would not be until Winston Churchill and the Second World War that the relationship between the two nations became truly “special.” In a speech at Westminster College in 1946, Churchill coined the term “special relationship” in reference to the past and future cooperation between the United Kingdom and the United States. “This relationship,” he stated, “arises from the nations’ shared history and vision for the future.” Churchill saw this relationship most essentially as deep military and security cooperation. He also saw it as a way to strengthen the newly founded United Nations through mutual understanding and action. Churchill believed that the special relationship would build a safer and more prosperous world.
One of the oldest arguments in favor of the Special Relationship is the shared history and ideologies of our nations. America’s heritage and traditions largely come from Britain. Contrary to what many say, our founding was not a wholesale rejection of British modes of governance. In fact, many of the Founders viewed their project as a continuation of the tradition they had inherited. Maintaining a relationship with the United Kingdom is an acknowledgement of our shared culture and ways of life. Though the cultural ties are not as strong as they once were, the American tradition is undeniably an offshoot of the British tradition.
Even more compelling than our cultural ties to the UK are our ideological ties. Since the American founding was in many ways a continuation of the British tradition, British ideals were preserved. In particular, the commitment of the British to government by the people dates back centuries. Whether one views the American founding as more conservative or liberal, America’s British roots are undeniable. The conservative method of government by the people can be traced back to at least the Magna Carta in 1215 and the establishment of parliament. The liberal tradition can largely be credited to the likes of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke (among others), who viewed society and government as a social contract. Either way, America’s roots are founded in British traditions of self-governance.
These two shared characteristics—culture and ideology—provide a strong argument for maintaining a special relationship with the United Kingdom today. Similar cultures tend to get along well, and therefore our two nations are primed for such a relationship. Similar ideological traditions make the relationship deeper. Nations that are ideologically similar can and should share ideas. Both parties stand to gain from such a relationship in which stronger ties, both among our governments and our cultures, allow us to learn from each other. In addition, such unity would be useful in international affairs. It would strengthen the position of both nations and our shared ideology in a time when other, dangerous ideologies and modes of governance are gaining international influence.
The United States and United Kingdom have maintained close relations beyond a shared ideology, especially in the last hundred years. World War I, World War II, and the Korean, Gulf, and Iraq Wars were all fought by both American and British troops. The two nations (along with some Commonwealth nations) share immense amounts of intelligence in the Five Eyes alliance (an intelligence-sharing alliance between the U.S. and four Commonwealth nations). The relationship between the US and UK began to decline after its peak at the end of the 20th century, when President Clinton and Prime Minister Blair were very close. Former President Barack Obama, for example, seemed to consider Germany (specifically Angela Merkel) his closest European ally. Trump has turned away from Europe and the United Kingdom and toward other allies. He has threatened to curtail intelligence sharing with the UK because of their decision to allow Huawei to build part of their 5G network. Trade deals that were supposed to come after the UK’s departure from the EU now also seem to be in jeopardy.
These circumstances coincide with the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union. Both the United States’ and United Kingdom’s relationships with Europe have seen better days. China is rising and becoming more and more influential on the international stage. Now is as good a time as any to reaffirm the Special Relationship. Doing so would strengthen both nations and advance the ideological causes that each one stands for.
The United Kingdom is the second largest economy in Europe and sixth in the world. Closer economic relations between the US and UK would make both nations richer. One of the understandings that came with Britain’s exit from the European Union was that a new trade deal would be made with the United States. The EU accounted for 53% of British imports (about $450 billion). A new trade deal between the US and UK, along with (assumed) increased restrictions on UK-EU trade, means that the United States can fill a large gap in British imports. Even if the US only filled ten percent of the exports that the EU previously did, US exports would increase by nearly two percent overall. Of course, with a new trade deal, new avenues for goods and services could be opened and old ones could be filled. Two percent could become four percent under the right circumstances.
Maintaining the Special Relationship would also bring strategic and diplomatic advantages to both sides. The benefit to the UK is obvious. For the US, closer military relations would bring many benefits beyond just overall military power. Currently, the United States and United Kingdom, along with some other Commonwealth nations, share vast amounts of intelligence with each other. Though some aspects of this partnership are certainly problematic, such as efforts to circumvent domestic intelligence restrictions through the alliance (the NSA files leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013 are related to this), a multilateral intelligence operation is certainly useful in countering foreign threats. Intelligence sharing has been helpful in counterterrorism efforts, and it could be repurposed today for countering China.
The greatest geopolitical threat to the world in the coming years will come from China. In particular, China presents a unique threat in intelligence and counterintelligence. They have mobilized their entire nation for the purpose of gathering information. Their National Intelligence Law of 2017 requires any individual or entity within the nation to cooperate and assist Chinese intelligence agencies when requested. A nationally mobilized intelligence apparatus must be countered not just by the US, but by our allies and the rest of the world. A close intelligence sharing relationship between the US and UK would vastly increase the West’s ability to counter Chinese influence. While not every nation will be privileged enough to have a close intelligence partnership with the United States, maintaining a close relationship with the UK and other Commonwealth nations will allow for greater intelligence collection and analysis, as well as a greater diplomatic network to disseminate relevant findings to other nations in order to counter Chinese influence.
Having a relatively powerful military and economic partner would also help legitimize US actions internationally. Ideally, the US and UK would support each other more vocally in international organizations, giving each other greater influence in organizations that they are losing influence in. If an independent Britain can prove its worth without the European Union, it will gain a much stronger voice in international organizations. Additionally, actions taken bilaterally would be perceived as more credible on the international stage than actions taken unilaterally. No matter how close two nations are, there will always be differences. When they are able to agree and act together, that action is made more credible because of it.
The Special Relationship is especially pertinent now. Two factors make it more important than ever: the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union and the rise of China. The first creates an opportunity for something new, while the latter demands a change of course. Economic partnership, as discussed before, would strengthen both nations. Deeper military and intelligence cooperation would help to counter China. Both nation’s international standings could benefit from a better relationship. The relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom has always been valuable, but the international environment in 2020 requires a new and revitalized approach to the friendship.
About the Author
Ethan Lehman is the Executive Editor of American Discourse.