Magazine | February 20, 2017, Issue

A Very Special Relationship

America and Britain after Brexit

Only minutes after Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, had delivered her speech to the Republican retreat in Philadelphia, hawk-eyed U.K. hacks and bloggers noticed a minor statistical embarrassment:

Number of times May mentioned the “special relationship” in her address: eight.

Number of times the White House calendar had misspelled her Christian name (as “Teresa”): three.

It was no big deal, of course; besides, the Brits were in no position to claim hurt feelings on such grounds. When the G7 summit was held in London in 1984, the official British roster of dignitaries had listed the Italian prime minister not under his real name, Bettino Craxi, but as one Benito Craxi. A minor slip, to be sure, but my old friend and Daily Telegraph colleague Frank Johnson promptly asked the question in everyone’s mind: Where was the listing of Adolf Kohl?

The unintended insult to Mrs. May was tiny by comparison, suggesting no Freudian compulsion to mention the War of 1812. Still, it was seized on and repeated across the media and the Internet to make a point popular with U.K. analysts of international politics: namely, that the U.S.–U.K. special relationship is an embarrassing British delusion designed to shield the country’s decline from itself. She boasts of her relationship with the White House and they barely know who she is! In practice, the argument continues, Washington is conscious of the “so-called special relationship” mainly when a distinguished Brit is visiting or when the idea is employed to recruit Britain for assistance in some such venture as the Iraq War. British interests are otherwise ignored or overridden when convenient to Washington — see Suez, etc. — and the Brits deceive themselves on this score. The tragedy for London is that this pernicious myth diverts the country from its true and inevitable destiny inside a united Europe. But the Brits even conceal from themselves that the U.S. has been pushing them into Europe since the early Fifties. Sad, really.

This argument has some truth in it, as we shall see. It appeals mainly and most strongly to two groups of commentators and historians: radical anti-Americans, on both the right and the left, and enthusiasts for the European Union. But there are moments, Suez again, when historical reverses make it more widely popular, if temporarily so, with the mass of British people.

There is one important group in the U.K., however, that is almost never seriously tempted to adopt this hostile view: namely, successive British governments from 1941 to the present. (Prime Minister Edward Heath, 1970–74, is the single exception.) If Brexit goes through and is followed by an Anglo–American free-trade deal, any surrounding hostility to the American connection is likely to diminish steadily. That is one reason the Remainers are so determined to halt and reverse Brexit — and one of the many reasons they also detest President Trump, whose support for a U.S.–U.K. free-trade deal makes Brexit more likely to succeed

Why British governments have been such consistent adherents of the special relationship goes back to its birth in 1941. There was a pre-history of it, of course, starting with Britain’s long appeasement of the United States in the Venezuela crisis of the 1890s that culminated in the World War I alliance. That had foundered in the interwar years, however, and American isolationism meant that from the fall of France the British fought on “alone.” “Aye, all 500 million of us,” wrote a down-to-earth British cartoonist, referring to Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, and the rest. Still, it was a hard-fought war with few British victories. Then, in January 1941, at the North British Hotel in Glasgow, Harry Hopkins gave Churchill a dinner at which he revealed what he intended to tell FDR on his return from a fact-finding visit: “Well, I am going to quote you one verse from the Book of Books. Whither thou goest, I will go and where thou lodgest I will lodge, thy people will be my people, and thy God, my God.”

A good deal of allowance must be made for rhetorical exaggeration on that occasion; many disagreements lay ahead. But those words led to the meeting between Churchill and FDR on battleships in Canada’s Placentia Bay later that year, to the proclamation of the Atlantic Charter of liberties, and to the mobilization of the entire English-speaking civilization into a military alliance. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, the special relationship, already in existence, now went to war.

Talk to any Englishman who was politically sentient on December the seventh that year — there aren’t many now left — and he will tell you: “As soon as I heard the news, I thought: ‘We’ve won the war.’” Americans abroad weren’t allowed to buy their own drinks for several days. That memory has dominated the minds and imaginations of serious people in British politics, the military, diplomacy, and intelligence ever since. They knew that there would be clashes of interest (and less often, of ideology) with the U.S. from time to time, but they realized that such conflicts must never lead to a permanent breach between the two powers. A close alliance would either deter wars or win them. Australians reached the same conclusion after the fall of Singapore. And Canada’s geography seconded the motion.

With a little help from the Red Army, the special relationship (broadly defined to include the Empire and Commonwealth) won the war. It also arranged the peaceful transfer of the dominant position in world politics from Britain to America — a transfer smoothed by the common war effort and by the significant fact that the two powers had similar outlooks on world politics. When the West as a whole rallied against the Soviets in the late Forties after the Truman Doctrine was promulgated, the Anglo–American relationship continued to be a special one. Unlike NATO, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, later the European Economic Community, and other institutions of Western cooperation, however, it was not a regional North Atlantic alliance. It was a worldwide defensive alliance against Communism. And it enjoyed important successes.

The Brits defeated the Malayan Communists in a twelve-year campaign; they fought alongside the U.S. in the Korean War; they successfully defended Borneo against Indonesian aggression in the 1960s; and they kept peace and stability in the Persian Gulf until their withdrawal in the mid Seventies. All that happened before Margaret Thatcher joined Ronald Reagan to help win the Cold War and, not less significantly, to revive world capitalism by making it more open, more competitive, and more popular.

It wasn’t all Pilgrims Day and Rose Garden receptions, however. Suez was the most serious breach between the two powers. Eisenhower not only forced the Anglo-French forces to leave Egypt but also instructed U.S. officials to refuse telephone calls from British diplomats in Washington for six months. LBJ was resentful that Prime Minister Harold Wilson resisted sending British troops to help in Vietnam — “not even a battalion of the Black Watch.” Mrs. Thatcher felt angry and let down because Reagan ordered the invasion of Grenada, whose head of state was the Queen, without consulting her (indeed concealing it from her). She had earlier refused his request not to seek an outright victory in the Falklands but to allow the Argentines a face-saving exit. And so on. Occasionally Washington would let it be known that Germany was its preferred partner in a world where geo-economics had replaced geopolitics, as in the early days of the first President Bush, but then a hot spot would flare up, in that case the Gulf War, and the U.S. would realize that an ally without an army would help win few battles.

The relationship survived these spats, however, for two fundamental reasons. First, it rested on a deep and unique infrastructure of cooperation between the two governments at all levels: military, diplomatic, intelligence, and (top) political. That cooperation could be seen in such things as the high level of interoperability between U.K. and U.S. forces; the transfer of senior officers between the Royal and U.S. Marines; the regular attendance of the CIA’s London station chief at meetings of the U.K.’s Joint Intelligence Committee; and the worldwide intelligence electronic-eavesdropping system, Echelon, shared among the U.S., the U.K., New Zealand, Australia, and Canada. Britain’s EU partners were jealous of these close arrangements and frequently sought to bring them under EU control. But those attempts foundered because there wasn’t the same level of trust even within NATO and the EU as between London and Washington.

That points to the second foundation for the special relationship: It grows in the cultural soil of the Anglosphere. This is one of those concepts that are hard to define but easy to grasp in practice. Here’s my thumbnail definition: The Anglosphere is the sum total of all the contacts and relationships — governmental, corporate, and individual; economic, cultural, political, and personal — between the various countries of the British Commonwealth and the United States.

It therefore includes such varied phenomena as the high level of private U.K. investment in the U.S. (and vice versa), the legal relationship between Caribbean countries and the U.K. Privy Council, the success of British and Australian actors in Hollywood, the extensive mutual immigration between Anglosphere countries, and much else. These links have been intensified by the spread of communications via the Internet, which has abolished the tyranny of distance and rendered relationships based on geographical proximity less important.

It is this rich nexus of relationships, increasingly shaping a common culture, that is the fertile soil in which the special relationship between governments, militaries, intelligence agencies, etc. has flourished through the years. The special relationship works because the decision-makers in all its countries inhabit the same cultural atmosphere and therefore tend to see the world in the same way. Compared with other countries, Anglosphere governments exhibit a kind of muscular liberalism that seeks a peaceful world through trade but is prepared to use military intervention when necessary to enforce its values. Its motto was laid down by Palmerston almost 200 years ago: “Trade without the flag where possible; trade with the flag where necessary.” And if we think of the special relationship as a single country — it isn’t, because Anglosphere countries tend to be jealous of their sovereignty — we will be surprised to find that it has dominated the world for two centuries. What of its future?

The U.S. now faces several challenges to its dominance. If Brexit goes through, the Brits will escape a major threat to their sovereignty and gain the prospect of developing closer Anglosphere relationships unhindered by EU rules. This outcome is likely. It will be guaranteed, however, if the May government can be certain of favorable free-trade agreements after Brexit, thereby reassuring nervous U.K. opinion. That was why Mrs. May’s visit to Washington was so important. If the Trump administration really was offering such a deal, then she would make a giant step toward a successful Brexit — and a post-Brexit grand strategy for Global Britain.

And for most of the visit, it was a triumph for the British prime minister. Not only did American politicians talk of the special relationship as often and as warmly as British diplomats, but she was able to draw the president into supporting NATO, retreating from his support for “enhanced interrogation,” and much else. All in all, her performance was strong, authoritative, and seemingly effective. But this glow of success dissipated when Trump’s executive order on immigration was announced and set off a storm of protests. May was then forced to distance herself from Trump and promise to defend British dual nationals hit by the order.

That points to three problems in the way of an enhanced special relationship after Brexit.

The first is Donald Trump himself, who is box-office poison in the U.K. That may change, as it did for Reagan, but it hasn’t changed yet.

The second is Trump’s general support for protectionism. That too may change or be modified, but if not, it will conflict with May’s vision of a post-Brexit Britain and with the U.K.’s long-standing “grand strategy” of free trade, free capital movements, property rights, and sound money in international politics. A general policy of bilateral trade deals seems a possible compromise. She can probably work her magic with Trump on that as on NATO, in part because it looks like Trump’s real position.

Finally, when all is said and done, the special relationship is one between a superpower and an important but middle-ranking power. There’s always a psychological difficulty for the smaller power about making such a relationship much closer: It invites the “poodle” accusation from domestic opponents of the policy.

In this case, however, there is an answer. Some of those strategists who have developed the Anglosphere concept in recent years — including historian Andrew Roberts, economist Andrew Lilico, and above all the “father of the Anglosphere,” James C. Bennett — have been fleshing out the idea of CANZUK (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the U.K.). This would be an alliance encompassing freer trade and investment rules, liberalized migration policies, military cooperation, and other forms of close cooperation. The countries’ relations are already very close — they are four of the “five eyes” in Echelon; the U.K. and Canada share embassies; the defense and foreign-policy chiefs of Australia and the U.K. meet regularly at AUKMIN (Australia–United Kingdom Ministerial Consultations); and, above all, polls show that the populations of all four countries would be happy with more migrants from the other three. From the U.S. standpoint, CANZUK would be a more powerful partner, with the second-largest joint defense budget in the world, while the countries in CANZUK would be negotiating with the U.S. on a more nearly equal basis. And for Britain it would be a natural extension of its traditional grand strategy, with none of the EU’s intrusions on sovereignty.

In short, a very special relationship.

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