The “special relationship”: old and new, imagined and real
Enthusiasts for the “special relationship” would seem to be uniquely susceptibleto delusional thinking.
In the UK there is the delusion that the connection compensatesfor the loss of empire and makes Britain great despite it. On the American side there isthe parallel belief that by “succeeding John Bull” as the world’s dominant power, theU.S. has taken over a civilizing mission that renders its hegemony more legitimate, morebenign and more tasteful. Visions of Anglo-American cooperation almost inevitablybuild on a sense of racial pride that is not only delusional, but also quite unappealing tothose left out, and they are typically accompanied by a marked preference for Conserva-tive politics. The main delusion held by proponents of the alliance is, of course, the ideathat it matters greatly to both parties and to the world. Again and again, the actions ofboth governments have demonstrated that this is not quite true, that national interestscan and do drive the two allies apart and that, when they act together, cooperation pre-supposes common interests. There are also the enduring British conceit that they haveand should have more influence on the U.S. than they in fact have and the recurringAmerican tendency to forget the alliance until they need British support for some ven-ture where unilateral action is inappropriate. Politicians and diplomats regularly feedthe delusions embedded in the connection while acknowledging in practice the less sen-timental realities that lie beneath the rhetoric.Inevitably, then, excessive talk of the “special relationship” elicits irritation, bore-dom, ridicule and confusion in roughly equal measure. When invoked by British andAmerican politicians it can signify anything from a common language and cultural con-nectedness to a battle-tested military alliance. To many on the left in both countries itrepresents imperialism pure and simple. In Britain it appeals mainly to the mainstream,to judicious and worldly-wise leaders who see it as a means of augmenting Britain’s in-fluence in an era of diminished power. While it is typically opposed by the left, it is alsoopposed by those on the right who see America as the enemy of Britain’s former empireand the usurper of its global role. In America politicians and diplomats of the realist per-suasion scarcely think of it, except at those moments when the U.S. wants to do some-thing like fight a war, make peace, construct an alliance or fight for a line in an interna-tional organization – the stuff of international relations on a daily basis – and find theycould use a reliable ally. The “special relationship’s” serious enthusiasts in the U.S. tendto be, if not quite cranks, at least rather quaint Anglophiles who regularly gather to-gether to celebrate some Churchill anniversary or to applaud Mrs. Thatcher. To theFrench,
, as Chirac explained during the failed campaign to ratify the EUconstitution, represent the crass culture of the marketplace and as such threaten
in France and elsewhere.
Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Center for European and Mediterranean Studies, NewYork University, October 12, 2007; at the Bristol Institute for Public Affairs and the Political Studies Asso-ciation Labour Movements Group Conference, Department of Politics, University of Bristol, May 24,
2007; and at the Seminar on Contemporary British History, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, January 24, 2007. I am grateful to the organizers of these events and to the participants, who in-variably asked probing questions that invariably helped with subsequent iterations of the argument better. Iprofited as well from readings of old and new versions of this essay by John Young, John Baylis, JohnDumbrel, Andrew Gamble, David Reynolds, Michael Hunt, Seth Jacobs, Jim Shoch and Peter Hall. Withthis much help, it should be obvious that any remaining mistakes and misconceptions are mine alone.