The Union Flak


 A grinning Churchill and FDR sit together, cementing the cooperation necessary to save democracy and the Western world as we know it. The romance of these now fading photographs inspired a “special relationship”, as Churchill called it, between the United States and the United Kingdom. Because of the strong cultural, historical, and linguistic ties between the two countries, they developed one of the strongest relationships on the planet. Originally an alliance created to face a common foe in the Cold War, it has since turned into an inseparable wartime alliance, most recently demonstrated in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their intelligence agencies share unmatched levels of information. Since the end of the Second World War, every Prime Minister and President have formed some kind of personal relationship.

However, some academics—and even members of the British government—are arguing that in this age, the special relationship is nothing more than a nostalgic, feel-good catchphrase, and they advocate rebranding it the “essential relationship”. Even a full 67 percent of the British public expressed that the “special relationship” had no purpose in a modern context. This, however, is not the case. Yes, the world is a changing place and the exact relationship between the transatlantic allies is not the same as it was twenty or thirty years ago. That does not change the fact that both nations need each other in a rapidly changing world, and in the long run there is no doubt that they will continue to be close allies.

In an interview with the HPR, Rory Kinane, Coordinator of the US Project at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, noted that there were several factors that could lead to the erosion of the Anglo-American relationship. One of these is the potential for the degradation of the long-term power of the United Kingdom. Mr. Kinane notes that if Scotland achieved independence in a referendum this September, it could hurt the prestige of the United Kingdom. In addition, if the Conservatives were to win the 2015 election under current Prime Minister David Cameron, they would likely hold a referendum on independence from the European Union.

The United States has always prized its relationship with the United Kingdom because the British often share very similar outlook to the United States, and also because the United Kingdom, according to Mr. Kinane, serves as “a useful inroad to the EU for the U.S. [… because] the United Kingdom can propose some things that if proposed by America would immediately create opposition from some countries.” Withdrawal from the European Union would certainly damage the relationship. Taken together wit Scottish independence, Mr. Kinane argued, “would make the United Kingdom look like a country on the decline, turning inwards and away from the world.”

Luckily, though, this scenario is predicated on “ifs, and then more ifs beyond that”, as Mr. Kinane says. First of all, Labour is odds on to win or make large gains in the 2015 general election, which means that Mr. Cameron would never be able to have his referendum in the first place. Even if the Conservatives do win the election, the referendum may fail to pass. The race for public opinion is close, but some polls show the majority of Britons wanting to stay in the European Union. In regard to the Scottish question, one of the rosiest opinion polls ever taken for the pro-independence camp showed 40 percent in support of it. While anything can still happen, it looks like Britain’s standing on the world stage will not change substantially, which will help maintain the relationship with America.

Recent leaks showing unprecedented levels of cooperation between the American National Security Agency and British Government Communications Headquarters had the potential to generate finger pointing between the two partners when everything came to light. The evidence was damning. The infamous NSA PRISM program that vacuumed up users’ personal information from popular websites was also made available to the GCHQ. And when the NSA and the GCHQ couldn’t collect data by walking in the cyber front door, they ran a joint program called MUSCULAR that collected the information without the consent of the tech companies. When the spying came to light, both nations’ reputations were harmed. The United States faced harsh criticism from Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, who in July was so irked by the perceived American callousness towards spying that she booted the head of U.S. foreign intelligence services from the country. Brazil cancelled a state trip to Washington because of the spying. Yet the Anglo-American relationship was strong enough to weather the storm easily. Mr. Kinane pointed out that relations between Washington and London were not visibly harmed, and that the majority of American and British people have not been particularly enraged by the revelations compared to some other countries.

Other supposed portents of the British-American relationship disintegrating can be dispelled as well. According to Mr. Kinane, the oft-cited incident of Britain failing to support the Americans in attacking Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces was mainly due to poor political maneuvering in parliament by Prime Minister David Cameron and was not a symbol of British disinterest in American goals.

Rising British nationalism—another potential roadblock to good British relations with the European Union and the United States—is also an overblown threat. The ascendant United Kingdom Independence Party recently became the first party in over a century (other than the dominant Labour and Conservative Parties) to win a nation-wide election by winning 24 seats in the European Parliament. Mr. Kinane argued UKIP should not be conflated with rising nationalism, noting that people were more likely to “protest vote” in European Parliament elections and that UKIP voters tended to be more worried about immigration than the European Union. He stressed that UKIP still does not have a single seat in Westminster and remain unlikely to become a major party in 2015.

Yes, in the short-run there will be a few bumps in the road. Steve Marsh of Cardiff University writes in the Journal of Transatlantic Studies that “until public opinion and military capability recover from the overstretch of the Blair years, British leaders will be left praying that no U.S. President invites Britain to commit to another non-UN mandated military campaign that is not squarely in British national interests.” There will be a lowered appetite to comply with American requests for military assistance after Iraq and Afghanistan, naturally.

The fact remains that the United States and the United Kingdom fundamentally share a very similar view of the world and have very similar ambitions. Whatever short-term diplomatic troubles exist, it will be impossible for the two countries not to work together in the long run. There is no denying a few simple truths. Both nations face threats to their national security because of unrest in the Middle East. Both nations are experiencing sluggish growth years after a global economic crash. Both nations are feeling the tangible economic effects of climate change. Both nations feel growing unease over Russia’s aggression. Both wish to promote democracy and human rights throughout the world. These common interests have united and will continue to unite the two countries. The book Anglo-American Relations: Contemporary Perspectives argues that British willingness to support the United States ultimately boils down to “view[ing] the international system underpinned by American power as underwriting British interests”. The Americans, in turn, appreciate British support in preserving this international model.

When the Second World War ended, some said that the Anglo-American alliance was a creature of necessity, and that it would soon weaken. Then, after the Cold War, some said that the bonds that connected Americans and Britons would weaken without a common enemy. However, these people were looking at the alliance through the wrong lens. It exists not to confront ephemeral enemies; it exists and will continue to exist because of the similar outlook and goals the two have in common. As Lord Palmerston said in 1848, “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.” As long as American and British interests continue to align so closely they will be strong allies. The alliance may not be eternal, but it should be pretty close.

Image credit: Daily Mail

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Copyright 2018