The Not So ‘Special’ Anglo-American Relationship

The Not So ‘Special’ Anglo-American Relationship

With press reports circulating that the British Government plan to roll out the red carpet in 2017 for President-elect Trump with an invitation from the Queen for the billionaire mogul to stay at Windsor Castle, the British State is going full throttle in ingratiating itself with the incoming Republican administration. This pattern of behaviour conforms to the well worn, trite phrase of the Anglo-American «special relationship», a relationship which increasingly appears special to one side - the British.

As the BBC Washington DC correspondent Jon Sopel put it recently, the Anglo-American «special relationship» is more special to the British than the Americans. The great British politician and historian Roy Jenkins put it even more bluntly that the «special relationship» was a myth and a figment of the imagination of the British. Nothing makes the British State more neurotic than how it is viewed in Washington DC. Pages of paper are wasted in the national press and the UK Foreign Office obsessing over what the American Government think of the British; how American politicians talk of Britain; what incoming US administrations will make of their British Governmental counterparts etc. 

While the reaction from the German Chancellory and the Elysee Palace to the election of Donald Trump has been more cautious and circumspect, the Government of Theresa May almost threw itself at Trump with nothing less than a full blown welcome for the incoming Trump administration. Meanwhile, the dangerous clown of a Foreign Secretary the British are landed with, Boris Johnson, did one of his characteristic verbal somersaults. Back in the spring time and out of Government Mr. Johnson had this to say about Donald Trump: «The only reason I wouldn't visit some parts of New York is the real risk of meeting Donald Trump». Then, once in office as the mouthpiece for British diplomacy, Mr. Johnson demonstrated the hallmark of his political personality, that of a compulsive, pathological liar. Strangely, for someone who had professed how he would like to avoid meeting Mr. Trump, he started telling others to be more «positive» about the election of The Donald and to quit the «whinge-o-rama». It is very difficult to believe anything that Mr. Johnson ever says, given his propensity to change his mind every five seconds.

It is nauseating to see the British Government basically throwing itself at President-elect Trump. But then, politically, perhaps Theresa May and Donald Trump have more in common than we would realise, especially their views on immigrants and immigration. The fact is, as Jon Sopel, correctly identified, the alliance between Britain and America means a great deal more to the British than it does to the Americans. At an institutional level there is indeed a close collaboration between the US and the UK in so far as it is of benefit and use to American interest and power. The US and the UK work hand in glove regarding intelligence gathering. Indeed, British intelligence and GCHQ are in many ways subsidiaries of American intelligence. There is an enormous amount of defence collaboration between the two countries military-industrial complexes and a huge amount of business, trade and investment flows between the two economies. 

However, politically, this relationship and alliance has always been predicated upon how useful Britain is to the United States vis a vis the UK's position in Europe. Successive American administrations, going all the way back to the Eisenhower administration, have saw it as their geopolitical objective to have the UK in an integrated Europe within the EU. In many ways this was due to the US need for a satellite within the European Union to keep a close eye on what the rest of the EU was up to.

No other European ally of the United States is as in hock with the US intelligence community as Britain is, so Britain provided a useful conduit for relaying intelligence on the internal machinations of EU institutions and it was Britain that was trusted by the United States to basically represent the American position and interests in the Councils of the European Union. Now that the UK is leaving the EU it will be interesting to see the effect this has on the US-UK intelligence relationship and any diminution in the value of Britain to the US within this sphere.

The cold realpolitik of the Anglo-American alliance is that the Americans were willing to indulge the British in their fantasy that they alone were Washington DC's closest global ally, so long as the UK was of use to the US, primarily within the European context. Aside from this fundamental realpolitik rationale which underpinned the relationship at the intelligence, defence, diplomatic and economic level, the Anglo-American «special relationship» has only been made to feel special depending on the respective personal chemistry and political relations of successive British Prime Ministers and Presidents.

When a British Prime Minister and American President shared a good personal chemistry such as JFK and Macmillan, Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher or Bill Clinton and George W Bush with Tony Blair, the relationship did indeed seem special. However, when there was little personal warmth and affection between leaders such as with Eisenhower and Eden, LBJ and Wilson, Nixon and Heath, Clinton and Major, Barack Obama with Gordon Brown & David Cameron, the relationship has appeared for what it truly is, a transnational alliance based on interests.

When the British have forgotten their place in the power structures of the world, over stepped the mark, or come up against even more special forces in Washington DC, the United States has never hesitated to remind them of who is the boss and what the precise nature of the relationship really is. When Anthony Eden launched the disastrous imperial adventure of the Suez Canal War in 1956 without seeking approval from Washington DC, the Eisenhower administration initiated a run on the pound, effectively pulling the plug on British imperial pretensions post-WWII and bringing down the Government of Eden. The Irish-American lobby has always held far greater political sway on Capitol Hill with regards to Northern Ireland than the British Embassy. If it had not been the personal warmth of the relationship between President Reagan and Mrs.Thatcher and the Anglophile sympathies of the Reagan Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger, the US may have tilted towards Argentina or stayed neutral if the Reagan UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick had got her way. 

Never more starkly in recent years has the real relationship between the US and UK been on display than under the auspices of President Obama. President Obama told David Cameron bluntly during a meeting in 2015 that if UK defence spending was not maintained at 2 % the British could no longer count on the idea of the Anglo-American «special relationship» while during a visit to London in the spring of 2016 Obama made it quite clear there would be no special treatment in terms of trade agreements if the UK left the EU stating bluntly that the UK would be «at the back of the queue». Just recently President Obama has made it clear that it was not Britain or the British Prime Minister whom he regarded as his closest partner in Europe but rather Germany and Chancellor Merkel.

In many ways this really should be of no surprise to Britons. Many British people think that America is just like Britain writ large on a bigger scale. Well, it is in fact an extremely different country, entirely different from Britain. The only thing that America has in common with Britain is that English is the dominant language, there any similarities end. Culturally, there is a potent strand of Anglophobia which is deeply ingrained in the American psyche given the fact that it was Britain and the British Crown that American colonists rebelled against to establish the United States in the first place and it was the British who burned to the ground the White House in 1814. There is a reason why nearly every villain in Hollywood films are portrayed by English actors with cut-class, upper-class English accents. Those Americans who are Anglophiles usually suffer from status anxiety and social insecurity, hence they are drawn to the old world English social class structures and snobbery of Britain in an attempt to aggrandize themselves from their American kith and kin. 

A unifying theme of most Anglophile Americans is a bizarre fascination and obsession with the British Royal Family and the eccentricities, habits and styles of the British aristocracy and upper-classes. These Anglophile Americans never seem interested in the rest of the UK beyond the Monarchy, the Tory Party, the country houses of their Lordships, the culture and traditions of English boarding «Public» schools or the stuffy old gentleman's clubs of Pall Mall. As one particularly repulsive American investment banker put it to me at a reception once: «If you are an American in the UK the only place to live is London and then the only two parts of London to live in are either Kensington or St. Johns Wood». Perhaps what sums up politically how «special» the Anglo-American alliance is to the United States is that upon his election as President Donald Trump called the leaders of Egypt, Mexico, Israel, Turkey, India, Japan, Australia and South Korea and Ireland. President-elect Trump did not actually even bother to call the British. He left it up to the UK Prime Minister Theresa May to call him. The first official White House invite went to the Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny to visit the White House for the traditional St. Patricks Day celebration party. Note, there is no such equivalent White House party for St. George's Day.

Tags: UK  US