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The “special relationship”: Why a successful Global Britain matters to the US

If Britain turns inward, will America suffer?

By Emily Tamkin

At the Munich Security Conference in February this year, President Joe Biden called on America’s foreign allies and partners to rally against China. “Competition with China is going to be stiff,” he said, adding, “That’s what I expect, and that’s what I welcome, because I believe in the global system Europe and the United States, together with our allies in the Indo-Pacific, worked so hard to build over the last 70 years.”

His faith was not echoed by the German chancellor Angela Merkel. Nor did French President Emmanuel Macron espouse a similar sentiment. But his words were supported by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who spoke out against the repression of the Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang province, and also in support of Hong Kong.

As Biden attempts to reassert America’s position as a leading player on the world stage, Johnson wants to convince the world that a post-Brexit UK can be a “Global Britain” – a Britain with a competent, confident and ambitious foreign policy; a Britain that is not consumed with its own struggles with the European Union, or with domestic disputes; a Britain that is ready and eager to participate in shaping foreign affairs. 

Johnson prefers not to use the term “special relationship”, which Winston Churchill is credited with coining and which Biden has already used during his term in office. Johnson reportedly believes it makes the UK seem weak. Regardless of whether or not it is special, it is certainly true that the US and UK have a robust relationship, and both are better off for it. 

The US will not sink into the sea if Britain decides to turn inwards, or spends all its time squabbling with the EU. But an un-Global Britain would likely make it significantly more difficult, if not impossible, for the US to achieve its own outward-looking, globally minded foreign policy goals.

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It is easier to achieve foreign policy goals when you have allies. The UK not only has one of the largest economies in the world, spends seriously on its defence and security, and is one of the biggest donors to Nato, it also has a long history of providing military and diplomatic support to the US. 

“If you want to be a leader,” said Matthias Matthijs, associate professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins University, “you need followers”. And on key questions and strategic priority, Britain under Johnson is still “closely aligned” with US goals. “Much more so than the rest of Europe.”

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This alignment covers many areas. There’s China, against which both the US and UK have taken a more assertive stand. The question of whether the US needs a Global Britain could be framed as, “Does the United States need ambitious, mid-power allies that are fully signed up to its project and want to increase their footprint in the Indo-Pacific?” said Ben Judah, non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank. The answer to that is yes. The US may once again be trying to pivot to Asia, but doing so – militarily in the Indo-Pacific, as well as in terms of wider sanctions or policy toward Hong Kong refugees – is less lonely with allies. 

As for Russia, the UK shares with the US a general support for sanctions, whereas France and Germany prefer a more economically cooperative approach. On this, therefore, Britain outside of the European Union can be “more nimble”, as Heather Conley, director of the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, put it. 

There are also security threats closer to the UK and Europe on which the US would like to do less and have Europe do more. And there are Biden ambitions, such as the call for a global minimum tax rate, on which some European countries, such as Ireland and Hungary, will surely drag their feet. To get Europe on board with the global corporate tax rate, it would be “very helpful if the UK pushes along” with the US, Matthijs said.

“[The UK and US] think so similarly,” said Judah. “We always end up on the same side of things, [which] breeds a habit of coordination and access.” 

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There are also reasons for the US to worry about the alternative: that Britain becomes preoccupied with its divorce from the EU, rather than focusing on building relations with nations beyond Europe. 

Britain has essentially set itself up for a decade-long argument with the European Union, Conley noted, adding that the economic challenges of Brexit have so far “been masked a bit by the pandemic”. 

[See also: Members of US Congress speak out against Britain’s foreign aid cuts]

According to Matthijs, constant quarreling between the UK and EU would be “very unhelpful” to US foreign policy aims. Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, sees the situation as still more serious, with one possible consequence of the “bad feeling on both sides” being that British diplomats might be tempted to assure their American counterparts that they, not the EU, are the reliable allies. The Biden administration would instead prefer assurances that the two sides will work together, Wright said: anything else could undermine cooperation, and even “potentially damage Nato”.

Similarly, a second Scottish referendum, and a vote to leave the UK, could damage Global Britain and, in turn, US foreign policy. As the Lowy Institute noted, Scotland has a “disproportionate concentration of nuclear capabilities” and British basing locations. A divided or even distracted British military would be a blow to the US.

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Under Biden and Johnson, both nations have, so far, been recipients of enthusiastic mutual support. The relationship may or may not be “special”, but both leaders appear to be trying to make it work. 

In the run-up to and aftermath of the 2020 US presidential election, there were rumblings on both sides of the Atlantic that a Biden administration would think less than kindly of Johnson and his Global Britain. There are those in Biden World who remember when the British Prime Minister blamed then-president Barack Obama’s disregard for Brexit on his Kenyan ancestry, and Biden himself once remarked that some would call Johnson a clone of Donald Trump. Obama’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, is a known francophile who went to school in Paris. Shortly after being elected president, Biden even joked to the BBC about his Irish heritage, leading some to wonder whether he would be hostile to Britain.

Ireland does indeed have its own strong connection with the US. But the Biden administration so far has demonstrated a keen interest in working with Britain. The new US president was quick to make the phone call to the UK Prime Minister after coming into office. His first trip abroad will be to Cornwall for the G7 meeting, which begins on 11 June. His choice for senior director on Europe on the National Security Council, Amanda Sloat, spent her time during the Trump years at a think tank working on issues related to Britain and Brexit. And the US national security advisor Jake Sullivan met his UK counterpart Stephen Lovegrove in Washington, DC in mid-May. 

Johnson meanwhile appears to be in step with Biden, and has praised the President’s administration (consider, for example, the statement of support he put out after Biden’s global climate summit, in which he lauded Biden for “returning the US to the front rank of the fight against climate change”).  

Both countries face challenges: Britain has the EU relationship to deal with, as well as a possible Scottish referendum. Additionally, the UK’s proposed cuts to foreign aid could suggest that, while Johnson says he wants to be a Global Britain, the country will actually become increasingly inward-looking and shirk some of the responsibility it has previously assumed. The US, meanwhile, has one of its two major political parties openly toying with abandoning democracy. Either could decide to isolate, turn inward or abandon foreign policy altogether in favour of domestic priorities. And if either did so, the other would lose out. 

In the following days and weeks, at the upcoming G7 summit in Cornwall and the Nato summit in Brussels, the US will try to send a message that America is back and that it wants to rebuild the world after the global pandemic. But if Britain does not make clear that it is similarly back and ready to work with the US on issues relating to China or Russia or to trade, the US message risks being undermined.

The US doesn’t need a strong, outward-looking Britain in order for America to survive, but it does if it wants to remain a leading power in crafting world affairs. 

 [See also: What to expect from the 2021 G7 summit]