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The Washington Quarterly 24.2 (2001) 7-20

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Is the Anglo-American Relationship Still Special?

Gideon Rachman

"This is an Anglo-Saxon Protestant conspiracy. So much for Britain's commitment to European solidarity; its real union is with America." 1 That was the complaint of Jean-Claude Martinez, a French member of the European Parliament, during a debate on electronic surveillance and commercial espionage that took place in Strasbourg in March 2000. Martinez, along with many of his fellow parliamentarians, was convinced that Great Britain was being used as a base for U.S. satellite surveillance of continental Europe. More generally, he expressed a common suspicion in Europe (and particularly France) that Great Britain's real loyalties will always lie with the "Anglosphere" of English-speaking nations, dominated by the United States.

Martinez's language was lurid, and his accusations about electronic surveillance not provable, but in a general sense he put his finger on the most sensitive issue in British foreign relations. Will the United Kingdom's (UK) membership in the European Union (EU)--which has a self-proclaimed goal of "ever-closer union"--ultimately imperil its special relationship with the United States? It is a question that matters far more in London than in Washington. Yet in time, Great Britain's future within Europe--and the consequences for its relationship with the United States--may also come to matter to Washington. Little doubt exists that there are voices within the EU who anticipate (indeed, long for) a growing foreign policy rivalry with the United States. If such a rivalry were ever to emerge, the position of Great Britain would be both ambiguous and pivotal.

Before considering the future of the special relationship, it is worth pausing to ask if it actually exists. The phrase is certainly used far more in Great [End Page 7] Britain than in the United States. If prominent Americans hear the term, they might be forgiven for looking slightly blank. The United States, with global interests and a polyglot population, has "special relationships" with numerous countries around the world. Arguably, its relations with Israel, Japan, Mexico, Canada, and perhaps even Ireland are just as special as any relationship with the UK.

It is also true that the relationship--forged during the first and second world wars--used to be a lot more "special." In the immediate aftermath of the wartime alliance, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, British prime minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin were "the big three," molding the postwar order. Any pretense of British equality in shaping world affairs quickly faded, as the British Empire crumbled and Great Britain's relative poverty and military weakness became increasingly evident. The Suez crisis of 1956--in which Great Britain was forced to abandon a joint military operation with France in the Middle East, in the face of U.S. disapproval and a consequent run on the pound--demonstrated once and for all how limited Great Britain's capacity was for truly independent military action. The Thatcher-Reagan era resurrected a period of close UK-U.S. cooperation, brought about by shared attitudes to both the Cold War and economic reform. By this time, however, it was clear that Great Britain was the junior partner. Since then, in international economic cooperation, the actions of Japan and Germany (or the EU on trade issues) have mattered far more to the United States than do those of Great Britain--although it should be noted that in recent years Great Britain has been the largest single destination for U.S. foreign direct investment, surpassing China in 1999.

Aspects of Friendship

Despite Great Britain's diminishing global importance in the postwar years, it remains true that the country retains a special relationship with the United States in intelligence, in nuclear affairs, in a military alliance, and more amorphously, but perhaps most importantly, in cultural and intellectual life.

As Martinez noted, Great Britain does enjoy an unusually close intelligence relationship with the United States--a legacy of World War II and the Cold War. James Woolsey, a former director...


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