Britain and the United States are said to enjoy exceptionally close relations and the maintenance of this alleged relationship has been a cornerstone of British foreign policy since the 1940s. The so-called ‘special relationship’ is treated by British politicians as if it were reciprocal in nature. It is true that relations between the two countries have been close over the last seventy years but the relationship is not based on mutual respect and reciprocity. The United States can be exploitative and has often treated Britain with disdain. While we have seen peace and cooperation, the attitude of the United States is one of convenience and necessity rather than friendship. Not that there is anything necessarily mistaken with that approach in the world of Realpolitik but it is problematic that the British are guided by a belief in Winston Churchill’s rhetoric of ‘the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples’ and similar noble sounding sentiments rather than the national interest.
Relations between Britain and the United States have not always been cordial, at least as far as the British were concerned. Obviously the United States was born out of a bitter conflict with the mother country, but conflict flared up between the two nations in the War of 1812. Fortunately the Oregon boundary dispute was resolved in 1846 without recourse to war. During the American Civil War, Britain tentatively supported the Confederacy but stopped short of recognising the secession. Even after the war, in 1866 a bill was presented to Congress for the annexation of Canada.
The twentieth century proved far better than the nineteenth for Anglo-American relations. The two nations were of course allies during the World Wars, although it must be remembered that the United States belatedly joined the fight against the Central Powers in 1917. Entry into the Second World War occurred in 1941 only after she was attacked by Japan and Germany followed by declaring war.
Prior to her entry into the war the United States seized the bountiful commercial opportunities offered by the conflict in Europe. British balances of gold and dollars were largely depleted to purchase goods from the United States in order to wage war against the Axis powers. The Destroyers for Bases Agreement of 1940, whereby Britain exchanged bases in Newfoundland and the West Indies in return for fifty moth-balled destroyers, reveals the ruthless bargaining of the United States while Britain fought Germany alone. The value of the bases was far greater than the destroyers but such was the Royal Navy’s desperation at that time the deal was done. Regardless of this humiliating and exploitative agreement Churchill would wax lyrical about the ‘special relationship’ until his death.
Despite the lofty idealism of the 1941 Atlantic Charter, the Lend-Lease Act of the same year was a hard-nosed business arrangement, after all its formal title was ‘An Act to Promote the Defense of the United States’. The supplies received under the Lend-Lease policy were not gifts but lent and so had to be returned or repaid after the war. Under the terms of this policy Britain could not export any goods similar to those received from the United States. An organisation of American inspectors strictly observed that Britain complied with these requirements. However, such compliance was not enforced on the Soviets who received as much via Lend-Lease as possible (delivered by the Royal Navy’s Arctic convoys). An effect of these Lend-Lease regulations was to almost completely convert British industry from exports to wartime production making it difficult for Britain to revive such exports when the war ended. By VE Day British exports were less than a third of their pre-war levels, perfectly suiting the interests of American exporters in the competitive post-war markets.
The Dominance of England by Dorothy Crisp, long out of print, details the unequal sacrifice made during the war. The proportion of the population in uniform and war industries, contributed by Britain and the Dominions were far greater than that of the United States. What is particularly striking though is how the British Empire on balance waged war out of its own resources. Of the Lend-Lease received and purchases from the United States, Britain provided equipment, services and supplies of approximately equal value to her allies, thus disproving the notion that Britain was only able to continue waging war owing to American munificence. Nothing of the sort was displayed by the Americans during the war; rather they displayed a rapacious attitude towards Britain not at all resembling a ‘special relationship’.
Following the cessation of hostilities a British economy geared towards total war had to cope with the abrupt termination of Lend-Lease. Britain was practically bankrupt and desperately needed a loan to tide the country over while the economy recovered and industry converted back to civilian production. John Maynard Keynes was dispatched to negotiate the loan in July 1946 which he felt was conducted on the most unfriendly of terms. The United States loaned $3.75 billion, rather than the $5 billion originally hoped for, at a rate of 2% annual interest. The loan came with strings attached, notably the lifting of exchange controls which precipitated the Sterling Crisis of 1947. It should be noted that the British wartime debt, including Lend-Lease, to the United States was never forgiven or written down. The final installment of the loan was paid off in December 2006. After this final repayment Ed Balls formally thanked the United States for their wartime support.
Peacetime treatment of Britain by the United States was little better than in wartime. The aborted invasion of Egypt by France, Israel and Britain in late 1956 saw the British deeply humiliated. If it were not for a run on sterling and the refusal of the United States to lend a lifeline from the IMF the outcome would almost certainly have been a Tripartite victory. The Americans were guided though by the Eisenhower Doctrine rather than the ‘special relationship’. The Suez Crisis should have been an event which made the British establishment realise that a ‘special relationship’ does not exist anywhere except in their own heads.
The United States invaded the island of Grenada, a Commonwealth Realm, in October 1983 failing to inform Britain until a few hours before the invasion. Margaret Thatcher was privately angered but, without any other choice in the matter, publicly supported the United States in their endeavour to depose the Soviet leaning government of Grenada. Perhaps this can be excused in light of the heightened Cold War tensions before Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascent. However, the episode should have prompted the British to realise that notions of a ‘special relationship’ were nothing but empty rhetoric.
Tony Blair and George W. Bush were firm allies following the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001 and during the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. However, what did Britain receive in return for Blair’s unwavering diplomatic and military support of Bush’s policies? The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were complete failures even on their own terms. At the end of 2016 both countries remain war torn and terrorism is as bigger threat than ever. In retrospect the ‘special relationship’ was something quite special indeed for the United States during the first decade of this century.
The presidency of Barack Obama (2009-2017) will perhaps go down as the nadir of post-Cold War Anglo-American relations. One of Obama’s first reported acts was to remove the bust of Churchill from the Oval Office, a foreshadowing of his enmity towards Britain. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 was blamed by Obama on ‘British Petroleum’ despite the errant company being American owned and renamed BP. In April 2016 Obama declared that Britain would be sent to the ‘back of the queue’ in any trade deal with the United States should the electorate dare vote to leave the European Union. Why even bother pretending a ‘special relationship’ exists in 2016?
It is highly unlikely that American sentiment towards a ‘special relationship’ will change upon the inauguration of Donald Trump. Trump’s foreign policy, of which he was consistent throughout his election campaign, will be one of ‘America First’. Britain cannot expect any special favours or treatment from the United States. The British government would be wise to heed Palmerston’s famous dictum: ‘We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow…’
Deputy Chairman, UKIP London Region
20th November 2016