British and US ‘special relationship’ (foreign policy)

 How far does Britain’s special relationship with the US constrain its foreign policy?

The ‘special relationship’ is a phrase used to describe close political, diplomatic, cultural and historical relations between the United Kingdom and the United States. The term was first used in 1946 in a speech made by Winston Churchill. In recent decades, it has been argued that the’ special relationship’ is about control and how to keep both interests aligned. Today, is to believe that to a very large extent Britain special relationship with the United States constrained its foreign policy. This essay will discuss: How far does Britain’s special relationship with the US constrain its foreign policy?

As a concept foreign policy aims to ensure the security of its people and territory, promotes its aims in the international arena, and encourage co-operation with other countries. The special relationship between Britain and United States is close and robust because British and American values are essentially the same, which explains why national interests are often aligned. ‘The US-UK relationship is strong because it delivers for both of us. The alliance is not sustained by our historical ties or blind loyalty. This is a partnership of choice that serves our national interests.’[1] Still, in many aspects for both parties foreign policy is dependant one on each other. At the moment, it is evident that there is a distinctive relationship between Britain and the United States, but it exists at the top and bottom with very little in between. At the top, the common language and a degree of shared relationship and culture between leaders has clearly provided Britain with some extra diplomatic leverage with US policy-makers. At the bottom, there is a degree of detailed co-operation and understanding between the armed services of the two countries and their intelligence organizations. However, Britain and the US perhaps understood one another much less well than they assumed, despite the link of a common language. Britain was a ‘little island’, the US a subcontinent; Britain believed in the committed to the welfare state and massive state intervention in the economy; the US, at least in theory, remained committed to private enterprise. ‘Anti-Americanism in Britain was matched by certain anti-British sentiments in the US, especially among the Irish.’[2]

Throughout the 1940s and the early 1950s, Britain remained the US favourite ally, despite friction over the best policy to be adopted toward the Republic of China, British decolonization, the Suez invasion or the creation of Britain own atomic bomb. In any case, relations between Britain and the US remained close; much to the distress of the French who resented the joint predominance of the ‘Anglo-Saxons’. For British policy-makers, the question is ‘not whether or not a special relationship exists, or indeed what affects it may have, but rather how they perceive the future role of the United States in Europe, not only from security, but also from economic and social, points of view.’[3] On this matter it has been said that ‘the special relationship’ is going towards a utopia as Andrew Marrs relates on The history of Britain (YouTube).  

Historically, with Margaret Thatcher; the development of party politics during the late 1970s and the 1980s, in external relations no less than any other policy area, was dominated by the personality of Mrs Thatcher and the development of what came to be known as “Thatcherism”. At this point, there was a good relationship with US president Ronald Reagan, hugely beneficial to Britain.  In 1982 the Falklands war provided more proof, if any were needed, of her resolve to defend British interests. But the Falklands also marked a new strand in the Thatcher approach as she felt that the issue was a ‘test of Britain reputation in the world and that she aimed specifically to avoid a major setback once again of a western democracy in the eyes of the totalitarian east and the Soviet Union.’ Reinforced by her deepening sense of partnership with the Reagan Administration, Mrs Thatcher was increasingly inclined after 1983 to travel and to speak for the western world.’[4] On its last years the Thatcher government was solidly supportive of the Reagan government where necessary. In terms of weaponry and nuclear armament was also beneficial.

After John Major took over in November 1990 his style suited Bush better and the two developed an excellent relation, so good in fact that in 1992 ‘Major was accused of having worked to secure Bush’s election over Clinton. On the troublesome Northern Ireland issue, Bush followed Major’s lead.’ [5] Moreover, republican administrations had enjoyed strong links with the Conservative governments, and the new Democratic President Bill Clinton said he intended to maintain their special relationship. Until a degree, their personal relationship was described as ’especially awful’ with the two leaders once refusing to speak to one another while dining side-by-side. Additionally, Major stood accused of letting the special relationship become a personal relationship with the losing candidate, President George w. Bush.

A genuine crisis in transatlantic relations blew up over Bosnia. After the so-called ‘Copenhagen ambush’ in June 1993, where Clinton ‘ganged up’ with Chancellor Kohl to rally the European community against the peacekeeping states, Major was said to be contemplating the death of the special relationship. Also, a gap opened later on in February 1994 when Major refused to answer Clinton’s telephone calls for days over his decision to grant leader Gerry Adams a visa to visit the United States. The US State Department, the CIA, the US Justice Department and the FBI all opposed the move on the grounds that it made the United States look ‘soft on terrorist’ and could do irreparable damage to the special relationship. In this scenario is to believe that the lack of a relationship with US meant that Major’s foreign policy was not constrained.  Despite this, his dealings with Europe were seen as somewhat of a failure along with a clear lack of unity among his party by the end of his premiership. Likewise, the relationship only constrained foreign policy when looking at the Bosnia example. At this point is to be considered that Major era was arguably contemplating the death of the special relationship.

With Tony Blair, some critics argued that beneath Blair Britain’s relations with Clinton’s America were to remain very close indeed, as could be witnessed both on the personal and political level (the war in Kosovo, the continued bombing campaign and sanctions against Iraq, the breakthrough in 1998 for a negotiated solution in the Northern Ireland).  ‘At this point, Britain was indeed struggling mightily to combine the ‘special relationship’ with a pro-European stance.’[6] Some others argued that election victory in 1997 brought an opportunity to revive what Clinton called the two nations ‘unique partnership’. To a deeper level, the personal diplomacy of Blair and Clinton successor, US president G. Bush, further served to highlight the ‘special relationship’. Despite their political differences on non-strategic matters, their shared beliefs and responses to the international situation formed a commonality of purpose following the 7/11 attacks.

Blair leadership role in the Iraq war helped him to sustain a strong relationship with Bush through the end of his time as a prime minister, but it was unpopular within his own party and lowered his public approval ratings. It also alienated some of his European partners, including the leaders of France and Germany. Furthermore, the 2006 Lebanon War also exposed some minor differences in attitudes over the Middle East. The strong support offered by Blair and Bush administration to Israel was not shared by the British cabinet or the British public. In November 2006 US State Department analyst Kendall Myers dismissed the special relationship as a ‘myth’ with ‘no sense of reciprocity’. With Blair is to believe that to a large extent, Britain’s special relationship with the US constrained its foreign policy.

With Gordon Brown, although this British Prime Minister stated his support for the United States on assuming office in 2007, he appointed ministers to the Foreign Office who had been critical of aspects of the relationship of recent US policy. Prior to his election as US president in 2008, Barack Obama, suggested that Blair and Britain had been let down by the Bush administration and declared: ‘we have a chance to recalibrate the relationship and for the United Kingdom to work with America as a full partner. ’On meeting Brown as president for the first time in March 2009, Obama reaffirmed that ‘Great Britain is one of our closest and strongest allies and there is a link and bond there that will not break…The relationship is not only special and strong but will only get stronger as the time goes on. However, this changed in August 2009 when the ‘special relationship’ was reported to have ‘taken another blow’ with the release of Adelbaset al-Megrahi, the man convicted in 1988 Lockerbie Bombing, Hillary Clinton said ‘it was absolutely wrong to release this man, adding ‘we are still encouraging the Scottish authorities not to do so and hope they will not.’ Obama also commented that the release of al-Megrahi was ‘a mistake’.

In March 2010 Hillary Clinton’s support for Argentina’s call for negotiations over the Falkland Islands was triggered a series of diplomatic protests from Britain and renewed public scepticism about the value of the special relationship. Later that month, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of The House of Commons suggested that the British government should be ‘less deferential’ towards the US and focus relations more on British interests. Here with Brown; to a large extent, foreign policy issues aside from the special relationship remained a secondary concern.

Currently, with David Cameron president Obama was the first foreign leader to offer his congratulations. Following the conversation Obama said, ‘As I told the prime minister, the US has no closer friend and ally than the United Kingdom, and I reiterated my deep and personal commitment to the special relationship between our two countries’.[7] In addition, both governments confirmed their joints commitment to the war in Afghanistan and their opposition to Iran’s nuclear programme.

Cameron has tried to downplay the idealism of the special relationship and called for an end to the British fixation on the status of the relationship, stating that it’s a natural and mutually beneficial relationship. To a great extent, the foreign policy of David Cameron has been constrained by the special relationship with the US. However, he has tried to counter this by slightly distancing himself from such a close relationship and arguing of its mutual dependence.

Now, coming back to the question, the conduct of US and UK foreign policy has surely had its share of failures in specific areas, but the balance would seem on the whole rather favorable in perspective. Moreover, the period of neoliberal ascendancy witnessed the elaboration of a network of institutions — some long established but recently converted to the framework, some newly created or restructured — that embody the new paradigm and can be expected to further it. So the record, while controversial, has sufficed to make the formula that produced it widely accepted. On top, there is the fact that the Anglo-American relationship now rests on a congruence of outlook and policy that transcends calculations of short-term advantage and that reflects at least in part a common economic interest. Britain and the US now occupy similar positions in the world economy and the international system of states and their policy choices and economies have been increasingly brought into line with those positions.[8]

Abandoning the neoliberal paradigm, or the “special relationship” that is its geopolitical expression, and reversing the policy choices and institutional developments that have flowed from it, seem very difficult. It is of course not difficult to imagine shifts in tactics and specific political choices, but again the prospects are that these will be coordinated and that they will not constitute a decisive turn away from recent policy. The Iraq adventure has already disabused American leaders of some of their wilder fantasies about reshaping the world and forced the US to reconsider the unilateralism it so forcefully embraced in the National Security Strategy announced in 2002. The need for allies and for more multilateral efforts has been reestablished in theory and in practice and in that effort British assistance — as bridge, surrogate, or broker — will be at least as important as it was in waging war.

Two of the most distinctive features of the landscape of international relations as of the turn of the millennium — the primacy of US power (augmented minimally by the UK) and the close relationship between the US and the UK — thus remain very much in place even after, and perhaps in part because of 7/11. There are, of course, other key features of this landscape – the rapid increase in the economic power of Asia, the widespread resistance to further moves towards freer trade and to the very process of globalization, as well as continued instability in the Middle East and the likelihood that the Islamist challenge there and elsewhere is far from spent. These will no doubt combine to make prospects for global order very complicated. The potency of the “special relationship” – and its capacity to produce good and bad outcomes – nevertheless remains formidable and should not to be discounted.

In sum, in the short term, the UK should continue to do all it can to assist the US in the areas where it is also in the UK’s security interests to do so, most notably in relation to Afghanistan and Pakistan and in respect of reform of NATO. In the long-term, the Government’s foreign and security policy needs to be driven by the UK’s national security obligations including those towards Britain’s Overseas Territories, its NATO commitments and its security partnership with the US.

After the research done in this essay is tempting to conclude that the UK’s relationship should be principally driven by the UK’s national interests within individual policy areas. It needs to be characterised by a hard-headed political approach to the relationship and a realistic sense of the UK’s limits. In a sense, the foreign policy approach is in many ways similar to the more pragmatic tone which President Obama has adopted towards the UK.  As a result, is to believe that this is an issue that would be deserving of scrutiny by our successor Committee in the next Parliament. Plus, the UK must continue to position itself closely alongside the US in the future, recognising the many mutual benefits which flow from close co-operation in particular areas. I further conclude that the UK needs to be less deferential and more willing to say no to the US on those issues where the two countries’ interests and values differ.


-C.M Woodhouse; British Foreign Policy since the Second World War. Hutchinson of London, 1961.

-Duncan Watts; understanding US/UK government and politics. Manchester University press. 2003

-Geir Lundestad; The United States and Western Europe since 1945. Oxford University Press, 2005.

John Peterson and Mark Pollack; Europe, America, Bush (transatlantic relations in the twenty-first century).  Routledge, London and New York, 2003.

-John Dumbrell; The US-UK Special Relationship: Taking the 21st century Temperature, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, Volume 11, Issue 1 February 2009.

-Michael Smith, Steve Smith; British foreign Policy (tradition, change and transformation). Unwin Hyman Ltd. London, 1988

-Michael Clarke; British External Policy making in the 1990’s. The Macmillan Press, London, 1992.

-Peter Duignan; The United States and the New Europe 1945-1993. Blackwell, Oxford, UK. 1994.

-Robert Self; British Foreign and Defence Policy since 1945, Chapter 4.

– William Wallace; The Collapse of British Foreign Policy’ International affairs, Volume 81, no  1, January 2005. Pp.53-68.

Internet sources



[1] Duncan Watts; on understanding US/UK government and politics. P.11.

[2] Peter Duignan; the United States and the New Europe 1945-1999. P.66

[3] Michael Clarke; British External Policy making in the 1990’s. P.292

[4] Michael Clarke; British External Policy making in the 1990’s. P.232

[5] Geir Lundestad; the United States and Western Europe since 1945. P.238

[6] Geir Lundestad; the United States and Western Europe since 1945. P.260

[7] Taken from: Consulted on 28 March 2011.

[8] Taken from: Consulted on 28 March 2011.


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