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Political Anthropology: Power Dynamics of the United States and United Kingdom ‘Special Relationship’

What is the “Special Relationship”?


US/UK Special Relationship
Credit: Marlene Uribe

The Special Relationship is a well-known term to denote the reciprocal relations between the US and the UK, following the declaration of American independence from Great Britain at the end of the 18th century. Partnership between these two states occur in various fields: the economy (i.e. trade relations), diplomacy, military and intelligence cooperation, technology (i.e. nuclear power) and so on. Most importantly, there exists a political focus on Anglo-American relations.

However, this bilateral relationship became popularised during the course of World War II. It was famously coined by former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in his Fulton speech (Mar 5, 1946):

“Neither the sure prevention of war, nor the continuous rise of world organisation will be gained without what I have called the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples. This means a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States.”

The Special Relationship likely emerged at this time and was conceptualised into a more grounded foundation. It designated the intimate dimension of international relations and underlined a special bond existing between the US and the UK.

America & Britain: Natural Allies

The two nations shared many common traits that made this political alliance almost instinctive. They shared the English language; the same Protestant religion (and its denominations); political and economic influences (i.e. the 1789 American Bill of rights was likely inspired by the 1689 Bill of Rights), common values (democratic institutions and the rule of law), similar forms of capitalism (the WASP [White Anglo-Saxon Protestant] community and culture) and many more.

As League of Nations advocate and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Lord Robert Cecil once noted (1917):

“Though the American people are largely foreign, both in origin and in modes of thought, their rules are almost exclusively Anglo-Saxon, and share our political ideals.”

Politicians and leaders from both sides reaffirmed that America and Britain were natural allies. The specialness of this close Anglo-American bond was believed (and advertised) to be a champion of peace and prosperity, its goal to spread democratic values and liberate nations around the world.

However, there were (and still are) certain power dynamics at play when one took a closer look at this so-called Special Relationship.

The Junior-Senior Dynamic

The power dynamics of the US/UK special relationship are actually, in fact, unequal in its nature. As British scholar John Dumbrell defined it:

“The special relationship, if indeed it does exist, is spoken of largely in British accents.

Dumbrell suggested that this transatlantic rapprochement may have been more in Britain’s interest than America’s, proposing the British appropriation of the relationship. True enough, as the British Empire began to decline, America was rising to be a global power. Britain’s role in the world had started to depend on America’s leadership, especially after 1945.

The imbalance of the alliance is further explained by British historian David Reynolds:

“The notion of an Anglo-American special relationship has been a device used by a declining power [the UK] for trying to harness a rising power [the US] to serve its own ends.” 

With the UK as the inferior power and the US as the superior, many of Britain’s foreign policy decisions relied heavily on America’s and were more transatlantic-concentrated than European-concentrated. The most notable illustration would be the wedge that developed between the UK and the rest of Europe; the specialness of the relationship signified Britain’s preponderance over Continental Europe.

As Lord Robert Cecil said again (1917):

“[…] if America accepts our point of view in these matters, it will mean the dominance of that point of view in all international affairs.” 

This meant that America’s approval of political, economic, military and diplomatic decisions was crucial. The US  was very much the dominant hand in all multilateral organisations, i.e. the League of Nations, NATO.

So, what caused this imbalance of power? If this relationship is as special and reciprocal as it sounds, how did one nation gain the upper hand, and the other trail behind their footsteps, especially throughout the 20th century?

Rise of America as a New World Power

Rise of US in the World
Credit: Free Media Network

Aftermath of World War I

The Allies’ victory back in World War I under US military, economic and political leadership alluded to the growing power that the nation was becoming to be. With America slowly abandoning its isolationist policies, Anglo-American relations strengthened in the 1920-30s, with thriving transatlantic trade and financial movement between the two.

However, the US acted as the main (if not the sole) provider: Britain’s imports came from the US and its trade balance relied strongly on the expanding US consumer market. Hence, so did their entire economy. In fact, in 1920, the UK was indebted to the US (from war efforts) for an amount that would take generations to pay back, denoting a change in the traditional structure of world superpowers.

As British historian John Maynard Keynes stated (1919):

“Europe was in complete dependence on the food supplies of the United States; and financially she was even more absolutely at their mercy.”

The whole of Europe depended on America to save them from starvation, bankruptcy and to help them re-build their nations because of how costly the First World War had been. But as their Anglophone ally, Britain was starting to reexamine its global role, cementing the power dynamics of the US/UK Special Relationship.

World War II and Pax Americana

The 1930s became a pivotal decade in the evolution of the Special Relationship, especially when it was evident that Pax Britannica no longer reigned in the world, but rather Pax Americana.

Right before World War II commenced, the Roosevelt administration (under then President Franklin D. Roosevelt) had pledged not to intervene militarily and forbade interaction with belligerent nations. This was Roosevelt’s approach to not getting involved in any other European wars. However, after pressure from Churchill for American military support (as well as Pearl Harbor) the U.S. declared war on Japan and finally joined World War II.

The US President declared that the defence of the UK against any aggression was vital to the defence of the US. With this act, the US was able to lend defence articles, services and information to the British without payment (so not necessarily in US dollars). And in the course of the Second World War, the US extended this “lend-lease” policy to over 30 countries, transforming itself to be the “arsenal of democracy” (Pres. Roosevelt, Dec 1940).

The Atlantic Charter

One last defining chapter in America’s rise as a world power in the 20th century would be the Atlantic Charter.

In early August of 1941, the Anglo-American “Atlantic Conference” took place between the UK’s Churchill and the US’s Roosevelt at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, Canada. It would later be the founding of the Atlantic Charter (Aug 14, 1941), also known as a “common law alliance”; a war effort between the British, Commonwealth and America.

The charter redefined the Special Relationship as a defence relationship and drove a global alliance of democracies against totalitarianism. These values include democratic values (i.e. self-government), non-protectionist policies, global disarmament and collective security for all. It also inherited important points from Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms home address (Jan 6, 1941) and inherited Wilsonian values (then US President Woodrow Wilson).

Though mutually signed by the two Anglophone allies, this charter set the “junior-senior” hierarchical relationship that was to come. The US had intervened in the war due to the UK’s distress call; the charter’s core values were predominantly inspired by US leaders. It was crystal clear that, in regards to the power dynamics of the US/UK Special Relationship, the UK was falling behind…

…and even more so, due to the postwar abandonment of their imperial preferences.

Decline of the British Empire

Decline of British Empire
Credit: R Fresson

The World’s Largest Empire

Britain, a powerful empire that had controlled over 25% of the entire world’s territories, was dissolving.

In the two decades following World War II, the population under British rule went from 700 million to only 5 million people. The dissolution of the world’s largest empire further pushed the key role of the US, principally in the context of the Special Relationship. 

First, Britain had no financial means to sustain its own empire, as they borrowed funds from the US to finance its military efforts as well as to reclaim their own economic standing. Second, World War II—along with the Atlantic Charter itself—sparked many pro-independence movements around the world, and most prominently in the colonised world of the British Empire.

As historian Eric Hobsbawm stated:

“What fatally damaged the old colonialists was the proof that white men and their states could be defeated, shamefully and dishonourably, and the old colonial powers were patently too weak, even after a victorious war, to restore their old positions.”

However, it was not merely the world wars and Britain’s failing economic situation that drove its colonies to campaign for independence. During the early years of the Cold War, which immediately followed the aftermath of World War II (post-1945), the US administration (under Eisenhower) pressed European imperial powers—including their UK ally—to liberalise their empires. The US advocated this decolonisation act because they feared colonies would gravitate towards the Soviet bloc in the East; therefore, to rally countries on the side of the US (the Western bloc), the US pushed the UK to grant them formal independence in exchange for support.

Time and time again, the US was the driving force of UK’s decisions, both in foreign policy and domestic ones, showing the power dynamics of the US/UK Special Relationship.

Main Periods of Decolonisation

Though already materialising since World War I, anti-colonial movements emerged in a more proactive way during the interwar years (1918-39) in many regions of the British empire. But World War II had a much larger impact on the crisis, and it was in this time that decolonisation truly struck a chord in Britain’s deteriorating empire.

Under PM Clement Attlee’s Labour government (1945-51):

1946: Jordan

1947: India (resulting in its immediate partition, thus birth of Pakistan); end of British mandate over Palestine (leading to Israeli independence in 1948)

1948: Burma; Ceylon (Sri Lanka)

1951: Libya (independence under French/British mandate)

Under PM Winston Churchill’s Tory government (1951-57):

1953: Anglo-American intervention to overthrow Musaddiq’s Iranian government and to replace it with monarchical rule of the Shah (in fear of Communist rule)

1956: Suez Crisis; Sudan

Under PM Harold Macmillan’s Tory government (1957-63):

1957: Ghana; Malaya (Malaysia)

1960: Cyprus; Nigeria; Somalia (merger of British/Italian colonies)

1961: Tanganyika (Tanzania); Sierra Leone; South Africa becomes a Republic (under apartheid) and leaves the British Commonwealth

1962: Jamaica; Uganda 

1963: Kenya; Zanzibar (now a part of Tanzania)

Under PM Harold Wilson’s Labour government (1964-70):

1964: insurgency against the British in Aden (Yemen); Malawi; Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia); Malta

1965: Gambia; declaration of independence by the minority white government of Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe)

1966: Botswana; Lesotho; Guyana; Barbados

1968: Swaziland; Mauritius

1970: Fiji

The US Replacing Great Britain

Even before World War II, US leaders—and many around the world—were already persuaded that the European era had come to an end.

As Walter Lippmann once said (1939):

“What Rome was to the ancient world, what Great Britain has been to the modern world. America is the world of tomorrow.”

In 1940, the President of the National Industrial Conference Board told the Investment Bankers Association that a “vast revolution in the balance of power” was taking place. In fact, he predicted that the US would become the “receiver of the economic and political assets of the British empire” and that Britain would become a “junior partner in a new Anglo-Saxon imperialism.”

In 1941, editorialist Henry Luce called for the “American Century” after the war, stating:

“In any sort of partnership with the British Empire, America should assume the role of senior partner.

The US and the UK were wartime partners who had combined their efforts to defeat the Axis powers, but even then President Roosevelt reaffirmed that it was the US who had the whip hand in the relationship.

Or as historian Gabriel Kolko has put it:

“The administration developed a ‘clear, explicit and well-outlined agenda’ for achieving this objective of replacing Great Britain.”

Britain was bankrupt; they were unable to preserve its overseas investments and territories, maintain its military outposts, participate in multilateral commerce…

The imperial era came to an end, and was now replaced by the age of independence and democracy.

And the growing US influence prevailed around the world, establishing the power dynamics of the US/UK Special Relationship. 

Significance in Political Anthropology

Trump and May, US/UK Special Relationship in Modern Times
Credit: The Observer

The Special Relationship in More Modern Times

The Special Relationship has fluctuatingly evolved in both refinement and near collapse following the last decades of the 20th century. In the 1980s, the relationship flourished under the Raegan/Thatcher administrations (the US President and UK Prime Minister, respectively). Their personal closeness and identical values (both domestic and international) made the alliance the strongest they’ve ever been.

Then it remained stagnant under Obama’s presidency, though the rhetoric of the relationship stayed intact.

It was a rocky relationship during Trump and May’s terms, due to Trump’s unconventional behaviour and their clashing ideologies. Trump caused the biggest break with US foreign policy since 1945, advocating unilateralism, isolationism and Euroskepticism. The Brexit crisis only worsened the relationship on May’s part. In general, there were many issues on which the two countries no longer saw eye to eye. This included trade deals, foreign policy, economic agreements, views on climate change, arms negotiations, and multilaterism.

Legacy of the Special Relationship: the Biden Administration

However, the “special bond” may very well be rekindled through the newly elected Biden administration and Johnson’s Parliament. It will depend on the new US administration’s preferences, but also on the UK’s strategic choices. They will have to choose whether to remain aligned with European or American priorities.

Biden does not share Trump’s enthusiasm for Brexit and Euroskeptic views. Instead, Biden is keen on restoring relations with his American allies in Europe (and with the rest of the world).

Even if there are poor personal links between Biden and Johnson, the two will be much closer than their predecessors. Many of their foreign policies coincide with each other. From now on, London will expect stronger ties with the US in the future. And perhaps the power dynamics of the US/UK Special Relationship will evolve.

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