From Jamestown to Biden: the UK-US (Not So) “Special Relationship”

13 février 2021 /

8 min

Two kindred spirits: Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan shared very similar ideologies./ Barack Obama and David Cameron standing in the lawn of White House sharing very similar styles. / Post Brexit, Theresa May meets Donald Trump./ Boris Johnson gets a call from Joe Biden.

It has been said the United States and the United Kingdom share a “special relationship”. Although its origin remains disputable, the expression was first used in public by Winston Churchill during his Sinews of Peace speech in 1946 in Missouri. The contours of the Anglo-American relations have changed over time, marked by highs and lows of friendship, cooperation, shared values of liberal democracy and free trade – but also fierce competition. From Jamestown to the Biden Administration, we will look at what the past tells us about their relationship and what the future holds.

Historical Origins of the “Special Relationship”

Even though the UK and the US have been partners since the mid-20th century, their relationship has been more than awkward at times. Both share this sense of “moral superiority”, translated in the US by its Manifest Destiny and by Britain’s belief of its cultural and political superiority.

The Anglo-American relations can be traced back to 1607 with the establishment of the first English permanent settlement in Jamestown. Through its presence in America, Great Britain exported its people, language, its legal system, traditions, which over time created a sense of shared history. The British colonies were of great importance for its economy, after the Seven Years’ War with France, Britons imposed taxation on American colonies to recover from its war debts. Eventually, this led to American colonies rising against the British political authority, escalating into the 1776 revolution,  which resulted in a republican government being formed in the United States.

Until the first half of the 19th century, the US continued to develop its democratic institutions, whilst Britons grew in contempt toward Americans. This was mostly due to the 1807 Embargo Act imposed by President Jefferson, prohibiting trade with Britain in response to constant violations of its sovereignty right. The tension between the two sides of the Atlantic ultimately resulted in the War of 1812, ending with the Treaty of Ghent which returned to the status quo.

Relations between the two nations improved due to an increase in transatlantic trade and migration. However, this improvement was briefly interrupted due to the British attitude, or rather lack of, towards the American Civil War. Acting purely on economic self-interest, Great Britain chose to declare neutrality, having calculated it needed the South for its supply of cotton and the North for the supply of grain. When the American Civil War ended, the Anglo-American relations took time to recover. However, with the rise of Germany, London began to reconsider its policy of “splendid isolation” and contemplated the idea of an Alliance with its American friend. 

20th century: Vicissitudes and the Importance of Political Personalities

The 20th century was the time when the “special relationship” was forged. However, it was also a century marked by highs and lows, where the personality of political leaders largely accounted for the vicissitudes of the century.

The highlight was Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt’s relationship. Both recognized the mutual history of their countries and a shared language. In addition, Churchill would fearlessly advocate for a joint leadership against what they saw as a global Communist threat.  Yet, the Cold-War period would underscore the changing dynamics between the two with the decline of the UK’s power in the international order. Nevertheless, the “special relationship” proved to be of mutual dependency: the UK needed military and economic support from the US, and the US saw in Britain a valuable European ally to combat the spread of Communism in Europe.

The relationship hit a rough patch during the Suez Crisis of 1956 when Britain and France fought for control over the Suez Canal after it was nationalized by Egypt. President Eisenhower warned Britain not to invade Egypt and eventually convinced them to withdraw their forces. This was not only a humiliating moment for the UK, but also represented its dependence on the US approval, and thus the asymmetry of their relationship. 

The tension between the two sides of the ocean was alleviated by the signature of the Mutual Defense Agreement, in July 1958, representing a shared desire for an interdependent nuclear relationship. Another highlight was the political personalities of both Prime Minister Macmillan and President Dwight Eisenhower, which were decisive for the outcome of the Agreement. Macmillan, a close wartime friend of  President  Eisenhower, understood the necessity of taking a lead in restoring the relationship. In turn, it was in Washington’s best interests that Britain – and Europe in general – developed greater and independent defence capabilities.

During the 1980s, the UK and the US found kindred spirits in each other with the appointment of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Ronald Reagan. Both conservative leaders shared similar ideologies of utter « laissez-faire » in a free-market economy, although placing their respective countries’ interest at first. However, when the Cold-War ended, the “special relationship” seemed to lack a purpose, with London increasingly more interested in European defence and integration, despite the UK’s membership in NATO. During the St Malo Summit of 1998, Britain and France subscribed to the idea that Europe should have a greater voice in world affairs distancing themselves from the US.

With the event unfolding on 9/11, the Anglo-American alliance would be revived with a new common goal of fighting a war on terrorism. At the time, Tony Blair virtually became a US Ambassador, deserving him the nickname of “Bush’s Poodle” for his devotion to the American cause.

Major Challenges: Trump and Brexit

The election of Barack Obama brought some “fresh air” to the special relationship as his political alignment was much closer to the British and European ideals. When meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron, in July 2010, Obama affirmed:

« We can never say it enough. The United States and the United Kingdom enjoy a truly special relationship. We celebrate a common heritage. We cherish common values. …above all, our alliance thrives because it advances our common interests.« 

Unfortunately, 2016 was a tough year for UK-US relations. In June, the UK decided to leave the European Union, followed by the election of Donald Trump later in November. Trump’s relationship with Theresa May was described as “dysfunctional” and eventually became very awkward with Trump repeatedly criticizing May’s approach to Brexit.

When Boris Johnson was elected the leader of the Conservative Party in December 2019, it seemed Trump had found a soulmate in the UK, stating that Johnson was a “really good man” and that he was going to do “a good job”. However, Trump was not the ally Britain has hoped for in return. A great trade deal for Britain was not expected under Trump, who was no more than an embarrassment to the UK-US Relationship.

« One outstanding characteristic of the Anglo-American relation is its capability to resist structural changes. »

The Biden Administration: What to Expect?

Since Biden won the election, British politicians have become more content with the future of its relation. From Labour to Lib Dems, Greens and even most Conservatives have expressed their enthusiasm towards the new government.  However, in the absence of a common threat, the special relationship has to take a different path. Whilst a deal with the US becomes ever more pressing following Brexit, Biden seems in no hurry to negotiate with Johnson. This is worrisome for the UK who regards a trade deal as a crucial part of the economic recovery for both countries. 

For the American side of the Atlantic, the UK lost its value because, even when they were the EU’s awkward partner, they still managed to play a central part in engaging the US in European affairs and advocating for US’ policy. In reality, the US “special relationship” with the UK was an extended arm towards the European Union. 

As for the moment, the Biden Administration and the EU share similar worldviews and challenges for the coming decades, such as the climate crisis and the post-pandemic world. This ideological closeness leads the US to look increasingly to the EU for partnership. As Charles Kupchan, the former National Security Council for European Affairs official said: “[Washington] still going to call London, but that call will be lower down in the queue. Britain doesn’t have a seat at the table anymore”.

As for Boris Johnson and Joe Biden‘s relationship, its contours are still to be defined. Boris was an assumed supporter of Trump, at least whilst it served the UK’s interests. Fortunately for Britain, Biden is portrayed not to be a vindictive man, but one who is keen on rekindling its relationship with Britain. As a matter of fact, Johnson was the first non-border leader to be contacted by Biden right after he took office, with the latter emphasizing the importance of cooperation and multilateral organizations. Both leaders assumed to share the same priority: a green and sustainable recovery from COVID-19. One outstanding characteristic of the Anglo-American relation is its capability to resist structural changes. From Jamestown until the Post-Cold War, both countries managed to maintain its “special relationship”. However, it is more and more apparent that Johnson will face problems with the Biden administration. In line with Kupchan, Brexit has come to accelerate a Cold-War trend: Washington will engage more and more with Paris or Berlin, and less with London.

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