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The Withering of a Once-Special Relationship

Bruce Newsome is Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania. Andrew Glencross is Lecturer in Politics at the University of Aberdeen.

The "special relationship" was inflated by Winston Churchill between supposed equals (the British Empire and the United States) during an exceptional shared crisis (the Second World War). With the rapid demise of the empire after 1945, successive British prime ministers from both main parties have overstated this relationship, which jU.S.tifies global pretensions and ambivalence towards full participation in the European Union (EU).

BP's inept management of the oil disaster in the Mexican Gulf and the Scottish government's release (possibly following pressure from BP and the then British administration, led by Tony Blair) of a Libyan (Abdelbaset al-Megrahi), convicted of blowing up an airliner over Lockerbie, are genuine issues for American investigation, but the Anglophobic rhetoric was unnecessary and is the latest brutal evidence that the special relationship is less special than the British think it is.

The Americans get a lot out of it, while the British get little. When the British realize it, U.S. policy-makers will come to regret taking for granted a steadfast ally that provided welcome military, intelligence, and diplomatic support as other so-called allies withdrew or prevaricated.

Britain emerged from the Second World War sovereign but indebted to the U.S. in particular. The U.S. immediately excluded Britain from the nuclear program (to which it had contributed) and expected Britain to pay for all imports. The U.S. made sure to hasten the end of empire by replacing Britain's preferential financial and trade systems. Leveraging its economic stranglehold, the U.S. increasingly controlled British foreign policy, most blatantly by forcing Britain to withdraw from Suez in 1956.

The special partner did not provide much assistance for two of the most important crises in post-imperial Britain: republican terrorism in Northern Ireland, which found political and financial support amongst Irish-Americans, and the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982. Indeed, in a visit to Buenos Aires this March, Hilary Clinton raised British hackles by calling for negotiations on the islands' sovereignty.

Nevertheless, British politicians took credit for largely mythical "special" American concessions (such as rights to buy U.S. nuclear weapons) and over-invested in the U.S.-led global order. Although not an unquestioning ally - it rebuffed American requests to send troops to Vietnam - British politicians have invested more in the special relationship over time. Britain has contributed most (other than the U.S. itself) to U.S.-led interventions during the past two decades. This list includes the 1991 Persian Gulf War, operations in Bosnia, the 1999 Kosovo conflict, the 2003 Iraq invasion, as well as the ongoing NATO mission in Afghanistan.

Britain also has more than kept up its end of the special relationship in the diplomatic sphere. Within the EU, British politicians succeeded, against French reluctance, in pU.S.hing for eastern enlargement in 2004 and are committed to Turkish accession, two policies strongly supported by the U.S. In fact, Britain has played a leading role in ensuring that the EU's Common Security and Defense Policy is complementary rather than antagonistic with NATO. Likewise, Britain has used its permanent seat in the UN Security Council to help pass resolutions that legitimize U.S. operations.

Reevaluating the Relationship

However, now Britain is embroiled in an irreversible tri-partisan re-evaluation of the supposed special relationship, which suggests that the U.S. will never have it so easy again. Deserved but nationalistic and hypocritical American criticism of "British" Petroleum and the commercial-political rehabilitation of Libya have accelerated British realization of the myth of the special relationship.

Short of another shared crisis like the Second World War, no future prime minister will be able to commit to the U.S. as Tony Blair did. The Labour Party, loser of the 2010 parliamentary election, is in the midst of a leadership struggle in which all candidates repudiate Blair's partnership with George W. Bush. The new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government is re-assessing the British presence in Afghanistan and is under great public pressure to withdraw unilaterally as early as next year.

Looking to the future, the unprecedented presence in administration of the pro-EU Liberal Democrats augurs Britain's reorientation towards Europe, especially if a 2011 national referendum on electoral change, which would favor coalitions by granting more seats to third parties, is successful.

Buoyed by a more European Britain, the EU would drag its feet more over U.S. priorities, such as sanctions against Iran, intelligence sharing, or Turkish accession. This does not mean that Europe will necessarily "balance" against the U.S., but certainly the U.S. will have to invest more in the EU and NATO to get what it wants without automatic British support.

Britain's dawning realization about the unequal nature of its relationship with the U.S. comes at an unfortunate time for the U.S. Cuts in defense spending, the difficulty of keeping NATO members on board in Afghanistan, tensions with less generous allies (such as Israel, South Korea, and Japan), and the ever-present need for quality intelligence to combat terrorism all demonstrate that the U.S. can ill afford to lose its most important diplomatic and military partner.

As NATO troops begin to leave Afghanistan sometime next year, U.S. policy-makers will wonder why they did not do more to nurture their end of the special relationship.

By Bruce Newsome and Andrew Glencross:
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