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Thursday, 15 April 2010

The Anglo-American Alliance Lives

I reproduce below, in full, an analysis of Anglo-American relations by Professor Michael Cox, leading scholar from the London School of Economics. As ever, he adds considerable nuance and insight to the recently released UK House of Commons Report on the 'special relationship', analysed in USBlog a couple of weeks ago.

It will be especially interesting, in the light of the current frisson of 'activity' on this question, to hear what the three political party leaders have to say on the matter when they engage in their televised election debate on international affairs (the second of the three scheduled debates).

Professor Cox's analysis:

A recently released report by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee has received more than its fair share of analysis by the commentariat who rarely, if ever, look at the committee’s reports with much care. The reason for such attention is clear. The headline news coming out of the committee was that the ‘special relationship’ between the United States and the UK was either no more (if you read some newspapers) or (if you read others) was a term that should rapidly be expunged from public discourse. Nor was this all. The UK, it continued, should increasingly stand up for itself and not be as deferential to the United States as it had traditionally been in the past. It should even, sometimes, say no.

Of course, headlines are not designed to capture complexity or nuance; and so it would seem to be with this report. Indeed, its collective authors readily concede that the relationship still remained strong – stronger now than ever perhaps now that the popular Obama was in the White House. Moreover, they did not call for any new alignment with any other particularly special country, like say France or Germany. God forbid. Still, there was no doubting what the report was seeking to do: namely, set off a debate about why Britain’s relationship with the United States might be in flux and should therefore be re-examined.

Such a rethink after Bush and now in the era of Obama – who has other, rather more important things on his mind than to worry about the sensibilities of the Brits – is to be welcomed. That said, the report suffers from one basic flaw: a disjuncture between the evidence presented and the conclusions apparently arrived at.

Thus while we are told that the relationship should not officially be referred to as being ‘special’, largely because the term is ‘misleading’ and might offend others if used too frequently, most of the evidence presented would appear to suggest that it is precisely that, most obviously in the area of intelligence (see p. 5). Nor does the special quality of the relationship end there. In the areas of trade, culture and finance for example, according to the report the two countries look like having an especially dense relationship – one of the ‘densest’ no less. Furthermore, on many big issues, the UK and the US look like they agree about most things. We even like to visit each other’s countries in our millions. We also seem to like each other quite a lot. And we exchange our pop stars and movie actors and actresses with ease.

Finally, as Douglas Hurd pointed out in his written evidence, there is no chance at all of the UK waging a major war - and waging it successfully - without the complete backing of the United States. In short, it all sounds pretty “special” whether or not you like to use the term.

But this is not the main problem or the real issue. Basically, it is not so much what is in the report that is significant, as much as what remains unstated or understated. Put another way: what is really going on here?

Three things I would speculate. First, in spite of all the nice words about Obama in the report, there is an uneasy sense ‘over here’ that ‘over there’ they really don’t give a damn any more. So, we had better get used to the fact; and what better way of getting ready for rejection at worst (indifference at best) than by acting a little bit coy?

Second, British power is on the wane – as Stryker Mcguire of the LSE pointed out in a much quoted essay published in Newsweek last year (‘Forget the Great in Britain’, 1 August 2009). Decline does all sorts of strange things to people and states, but one thing more than anything else is for those so afflicted to speculate at length about who they are, what they are, who loves them and who doesn’t. In this sense, I read this report as symptomatic of a crisis in the making about Britain’s position in the world.

Finally, there is no doubt that whatever the UK might have gained from the relationship – and it has not been inconsiderable - it has fed British illusions about its role in the world. This was fine during the Cold War perhaps, and even during the 1990s before the rise of China, the uneasy emergence of the European Union, and 9/11. Now the relationship is proving more of a liability – however special it might remain. And this is what the report is really trying to say without, however, saying it too bluntly (that might after all damage the ‘special relationship’).

But where does this all leave the UK? In a most uncomfortable position I would suggest. Uneasy and uncertain about a relationship from which it cannot escape in a world that is now more dangerous than ever – and dangerous in large part because of the way Blair joined forces with Bush – the UK is caught between a very hard rock and equally hard place: between an affair she cannot abandon and a future she cannot contemplate without having her powerful, muscular lover by her side holding her hand and reassuring her that she still remains attractive.

Professor Michael Cox is co-Director of LSE IDEAS


  1. The annoying thing about Mic is that he has this way of being incredibly insightful and witty at the same time!! I of course say annoying in the sense that I'm jealous, because I offer neither of these qualities. What I'm not sure about is the extent to which what Mic has written applies to the Bush-Blair/Brown years, and not necessarily to the Obama-(to be decided on May 6th) years. I'm just wondering is the relationship more sustainable now given the manner in which the Obama administration has conceded that Iraq was an unnecessary "war of choice", wants to get out of Afghanistan, and is pushing (what appears to be harder than a long time) on the two state solution. Indeed Saeb Erekat seemed to suggest that all that was holding up the problem at the min was the percentage of "swaps" between Palestinians and Israelis - but I'm not going to hold my breath.

    So what I am wondering is the extent to which the US is actually now more in tune with thinking with the bastions of Whitehall, and the HoC Ctte report is out of date? This of course would reduce the tensions put on the "special relationship"...

    Part of my thinking also reflects my scepticism over the EU's current situation and the fall out of the financial crisis in Greece and Spain ... which of course means that the UK is less likely to move towards a fuller relationship with Brussels any time soon... (in spite of the Lisbon treaty). Any thoughts?

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  3. I'm not sure that Obama is particularly interested in the special relationship, even the transatlantic relationship, whoever's in power over the other side of the pond. Indeed, back in December I wrote that he might be the last transatlantic president, and i haven't seen anything since to convince me otherwise. See: