Barack Obama recently revealed his frustration with some aspects of David Cameron’s foreign policy.
In particular, he referred to the UK’s role in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, when the rebels in Libya were supported by the air and naval forces of the USA, UK and France. Obama suggested that Britain did not fully commit its armed forces to the conflict. Such comments have once again brought up the question of whether we should be so dependent on arguably our closest ally.
Few alive today can remember a time when Britain and the USA were not partners on the world stage. The relationship began in earnest during the First World War, but flourished during the Second and in it’s aftermath Churchill coined the now widely used phrase ‘Special Relationship’. The US provided Britain with essential aid during the early periods of the conflict and the UK welcomed US forces to help prepare for the invasion of Europe. The United States also sent troops to the Pacific theatre, where the tide was going firmly against the British Imperial forces in countries such as Burma.
However, President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill did butt heads on the issue of independence for British colonies. Roosevelt believed that, if the allies were fighting for world freedom, then the nations who aided them should all be granted independence. It was an anti-imperialist perspective versus someone who took great pride in the British empire, but Churchill eventually had to agree to consider the idea.
The two nations have worked closely ever since, especially throughout the Cold War. Friendships have emerged between the war heroes Eisenhower and Churchill, the staunch anti-communists Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and the like-minded duo of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. All of these relationships have strengthened ties between the UK and the US.
However, the UK and US have together carried out many dubious acts. One example is the Iranian Coup in 1953, which saw a joint MI6-CIA operation overthrow the elected government of Iran and give its monarch full dictatorial powers. The purported aim was to try and stop communism spreading in the Middle East, but in reality it was mainly about securing oil rights in the country. The war on terror has seen us once again fight closely with the US, and the coalition has invaded both Afghanistan and, disastrously, Iraq. The pair have such a strong alliance that they have been accused of acting independently of all global assistance or opinion. It is clear that this ‘Special Relationship’ doesn’t always help on the world stage.
Yet, our relationship has not always been so ‘special’. The US creation as a state lies in a long, bloody war fighting the British. The legacy of this conflict was not shaken for years. Only a century before the beginnings of the ‘Special Relationship’, British troops were burning down the White House. Later in the century some Britons even supported the Confederacy in the civil war. Today, the closeness of the relationship has also come into question. Britain did not aid American forces fighting communism in Vietnam, as they had in Korea, despite Australia and New Zealand taking part. Similarly, the US did not aid the UK in repelling Argentine forces during the Falklands war due to their trade interests – although they did allow them to use their bases.
These differences never put severe strain on our alliance, but this could always change if the heads of both nations don’t see eye to eye. The Republican Party in America has shifted massively to the right since Obama’s second term in office , which has led to two extreme candidates emerging as the front runners for the GOP nomination: Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. These two candidates’ beliefs hardly match up with any of Britain’s political parties, not even the most mainstream right-wing party, UKIP.
If either was to become President it could place the whole ‘Special Relationship’ into question. Donald Trump’s stance on minorities is in huge contrast to a majority of the UK’s, in particular his belief in shutting down Mosques and banning Muslims from entering the USA. As one of our London mayoral candidates, Sadiq/Khan, is himself a Muslim, any cosy relationship with a Trump administration would be disconcerting to many UK politicians and the public. Trump has advocated re-invading Iraq, and Ted Cruz has stated his desire to carpet bomb Iran.
It is unlikely that they would be able to carry out these plans, even if either was elected President, but the rhetoric alone is enough to suggest that the UK might need to break the ‘Special Relationship’. Maintaining the alliance under a renewed Republican Presidency could lead to the radicalisation of more Muslim UK citizens by groups like ISIL.
Online, many Green or Labour supporters argue that we could easily get rid of the Trident nuclear sub program and slash the numbers of Armed forces because we can just ‘rely on the Yanks’. While there is certainly a debate on Trident to be had, this train of thought is naive at best. Our close alliance with the US is just over a century old and our relationship could change drastically if either country elected a leader who didn’t agree with the other. Global politics is always shifting and we shouldn’t be so ready to abandon our military independence just because of a ‘Special Relationship’. If Trump becomes President and we don’t leave the European Union, the UK could form a new ‘Special Relationship’ with its states like France and Germany.
If Hilary Clinton is elected President, she would match up more to our Conservative Party’s beliefs, particularly regarding foreign affairs. Even Bernie Sanders would be a President with whom the UK could definitely work with. He is seen as a radical socialist by many in the US, but in the UK would have similar views to a moderate member of the Labour Party. Both Democrat nominees are projected to beat Republican candidates in the election, so it is likely that in terms of leadership the relationship will not change much in the near future. However, we should always be aware of shifting waters in global politics and conscious that one day the ‘Special Relationship’ might come to an end.