The “special relationship”: forget it

Under Barack Obama, as former State Department official Jeremy Shapiro informed the Cheltenham Literature Festival last week, US diplomats viewed the notion of a “special relationship” with the UK as “a joke”. Unkind words, perhaps, but Shapiro “did us a favour” by telling the truth. The phrase “had freshness and relevance” when Winston Churchill coined it after the Second World War. But today, on this side of the Atlantic, it “generates unrealistic expectations and encourages prime ministers to behave like poodles”. I banned the term when I was British ambassador to Washington in the 1990s. It made us look “needy” and pathetic. It was even used against us in negotiations: I was accused of damaging the special relationship when Britain did not toe the US line. America, it’s true, is our most important ally. But “in truth, the US only has one special relationship. That is with Israel, because of its influence over the US Congress.” We should remember this when US-UK trade talks begin: “warm and fuzzy words” will mean nothing at the negotiating table. (Christopher Meyer, The Daily Telegraph)

I read this excerpt from the Daily Telegraph with amusement because after 23 years of living in the United States I have heard mention of the “special relationship” with the UK
precisely once, and that came from someone who had been in military intelligence, and had served in England. And yes, the relationship with Israel superceded it long ago, for reasons of electoral fundraising. Surprise, surprise. Britain outside the EU is even less of an attraction. Naturally, foreign service people concentrate on the powerful bits of the world – China, India, the EU. The right-wing conservatives expecting a special deal from any US President are going to be disappointed. Britain is somewhere a third down the list.

  • Owen Bell

    I believe America’s true special relationship is not with Israel or the UK, but with Saudi Arabia. The House of Saud is irrevocably corrupt, authoritarian and unlikely to reform. Saudi Arabia is running out of oil, but obstinate conservative elites are preventing a classic rentier state from diversifying. The country is in irreversible decline, yet America showers it with money and arms sales. The US-Saudi alliance has also made a sensible relationship with Iran more difficult.

    Regarding the UK, it is obvious that America would prioritise economic relations with the EU above a Britain outside it, since the former is clearly the significantly larger economy. That’s the position the Democrats and much of the Republican establishment have espoused. Trump is the exception. But although Trump wants a trade deal with the UK, he is too incompetent and ignorant to negotiate one. More importantly, any trade deal Trump offers the UK will be rejected by the UK Parliament, because it would lower UK agricultural standards, decimate UK agriculture with cheap US imports, open NHS contracts to American corporations, and lower UK-EU standards to US levels. For better or for worse, a comprehensive UK-US trade deal is unlikely to happen- the same can be said for a meaningful trade deal with China or India. Overall, the chances of the UK’s trade position improving post-Brexit are very slim. In any case, with British economic growth so low and inflation so high, any drastic leap into the dark isn’t worth the risk.

  • Carmen

    Doesn’t the term “special” relationship sound like verbal pablum? What is “special” (such an anodyne word) is not that various countries use each other to advance their interests. That’s not remarkable. On the other hand, spending public moneys in ways that damage one’s own interests is tragic–e.g. Israel-U.S., and U.S-Saudi Arabia. That is “special.” The price of mistaken judgments about national interests is usually the same, sooner or later the military and economic power realities emerge: people die or countries immiserate their own.

    • rhanrott

      There used to be a special relationship, based on Britain going along with the US, come what may. Then came Iraq, and the British public went berserk. Tony Blair became , maybe, the most unpopular man in the UK for unquestioningly following Bush. Now only real delusional Brexit- suporting old-timers on the Conservative back benches, dreaming of Anglosphere domination, believe in any special relationship. I think that special relationship is with Israel, Owen thinks it is with Saudi Arabia. The very idea of any close relationship with two such undemocratic regimes tells you what you want to know – it’s all about money. The “mother country” sentiment has totally vanished, even in Virginia. Americans look at the UK and sadly shake their heads. I have joined them.