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20 November 2020updated 28 Jul 2021 6:10am

Why fretting over the US-UK “special relationship” overlooks its reality

From bust-ups over busts to diplomatic gaffes, analysis of US-UK relations too often focuses on hoo-hahs and passing frenzies.  

By Emily Tamkin

Consider the bust. By the bust I am, of course, referring to the bust of Winston Churchill, which sat in the Oval Office until Barack Obama came into office and the loan from the British government ended. There were in fact two busts and one remained in the White House, but many, including now-Prime Minister Boris Johnson, claimed otherwise. The “removal” of the bust was taken as a sign by some conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic that Obama was somehow anti-UK.

One could also consider the toast; specifically the one Obama gave to the Queen while the national anthem played. Or the iPod; the one Obama gave to the Queen. Or the other bust which Trump moved into the Oval Office, telling then-prime minister Theresa May that, “It’s great to have Churchill back”.

One could, alternatively, consider the interview Sir Kim Darroch gave on our World Review podcast, in which he shared that the British Embassy in Washington, DC, said of president-elect Joe Biden, “he’s certainly passed his best, and his best was never that good,” which was taken as another ill portend for the US-UK relationship. Or Biden being proudly Irish-Amierican — telling the BBC, “BBC? I’m Irish!” – led some commentators to wonder whether Ireland could be a bridge to the United Kingdom for the United States.

The brouhaha over each of the above is, on the one hand, understandable. Diplomats often fret over the size of the flags, the seating chart, the proper protocol, and it would be unreasonable to expect American and British diplomats to be impervious to shock over a gaffe.

But on the other hand, it is overblown. And it is overblown for precisely the reason it shouldn’t be: the idea of the special relationship.

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Each time one of these things happen, or this person is appointed to a role, or that person steps down, or another person gives an unfortunate speech, there is tittering in the political and pundit class that the special relationship is no more. That this bust, this iPod, this president — is the thing that has broken it. Headlines from the past week include, “Biden saw echoes of Trump in Boris Johsnon. Will it complicate the special relationship?” from CNN and “The special relationship has run out of time” from the FT.

Perhaps it’s true. Perhaps the special relationship is no more. Perhaps it never was. Biden’s first phone call was to Canada. The US also has special — and complicated — relationships with countries like Germany, France, South Korea and Japan.

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But the US-UK relationship, if not special, is robust, and certainly robust enough to withstand the non-removal of a bust or a comment by an ex-ambassador. The UK is one of the few non-EU members of NATO that pays above 2 per cent of its GDP toward defence, and is unquestionably an American military ally. The US and the UK are both in Five Eyes, the intelligence-sharing group, which is not going to dissolve because Trump walked in front of the Queen or Boris Johnson made another egregious comment about the ancestry of a US president (though he should stop doing that).

“There is an obsession on the PM/president dynamic. Rightfully so,” said Andrew Overton, former deputy head of communications and spokesperson at the British Embassy in Washington, DC. But “there are friendships between members of Congress and members of parliament, across all of the armed forces … working together where military events occur, you’re seeing the British do more in the Pacific.”

“The relationship that I saw and often talked about was what existed below the political relationship. I think that’s where it remains and always has been strong,” he said.

American goods and services trade with the United Kingdom also came to a grand total of roughly $273bn in 2019. And that’s without going into what’s come to be known as soft culture: that the United Kingdom is the top destination for American undergraduates studying abroad, for example, as well as for so much musical, literary and film crossover.

And failing to acknowledge the robustness of the relationship by fretting so much over its special status also risks making two key mistakes.

The first is that those who do are in danger of missing actual threats to the relationship. To harp, for example, on Joe Biden’s Irish heritage as a potential threat to US-UK accord is to miss the fact that Democrats specifically, and American politicians more broadly, see themselves as happily responsible for and thus committed to the Good Friday Agreement. Jeopardising that is what would really threaten a trade agreement with the United States.

The second is that it doesn’t give the United States, or the United Kingdom, or all of the officials who make the relationship work day to day enough credit. It does not allow for an honest assessment of where we are. It doesn’t need to be special. It just needs to work. And, at least so far, it still is. It’s withstood four years of Trump, and Brexit, and Nigel Farage working for Fox News as a political analyst.

It has even withstood the bust-up over the bust.

[See also: Why the real special relationship is between the US and Ireland]