Wikileaks and the not so special relationship UK-US

Article published on Dec. 4, 2010
Article published on Dec. 4, 2010
Time to revise down aspirations? The "Special relationship" One of the key elements of the British national psyche, which helps Brits to feel different from their "European" counterparts, is the "Special relationship" Britain is said to enjoy with the USA. For many Brits, a Union with other Europeans does not make sense when Britain is side by side with the world super power... well sort of.

It is clear that through culture, a common language and generations of migrants, the UK and the US have a special link. Such a link may get looser over the year with a decrease in the proportion of Americans with a European ancestry, but it is unlikely to be seriously undermined in the short term.

However, there is more in the notion of "special relationship" than just stating the obvious about these cultural links. There is the idea that the British and US governments share an understanding and stand together on the world stage. There also the idea that Britain has a special status as a partner for the USA.

A British insecurity

There has been, over the recent years, a deep anxiety in British media about the reality of this relationship. There was first the nagging feeling that the relationship was going only one way when Britain was following the US in the Iraq war with phony American arguments. The casual way Bush was recorded to address the British PM with a "Yo Blair" did not help.

The new Obama administration has made things worse. One of his first moves was to remove the Churchill bust from the Oval office. Then Gordon Brown was allegedly snubbed by Obama in his visit to the US with no full-blown press conference and no formal dinner. Answering to British journalists, a White House official declared: "There's nothing special about Britain. You're just the same as the other 190 countries in the world. You shouldn't expect special treatment."

special3 Beside these symbolical issues, the USA did not even supported Britain when recently Argentina talked again of the Falklands problem. Instead of standing with Britain on an issue which is of symbolical importance for it, Hilary Clinton suggested that a "discussion across a table" would be a good solution (something Britain is surely not ready to accept).

An asymmetry between British romance and American pragmatism

The leaks expose the asymmetry between the world super power and a middle size European country trying to hang on to an old glorious heritage. On the British side, the leaks reveal the declarations of love made by the Conservatives to the US before the election. William Hague, now Foreign Secretary told the US representative of his "staunch atlanticism", he said that he "has a sister who is American, spends his own vacations in America, and, like many similar to him, considers America the 'other country to turn to.' His advisor added "America is the essential country.", and Hague "we want a pro-American regime. We need it. The world needs it." Another cable reveals how Liam Fox, now Defence Secretary, vowed to buy more American arms, saying "we (Conservatives) intend to follow a much more pro-American profile in procurement."

These touching declarations give a new light to the statement by William Hague that he wanted a "solid but not slavish" relationship with the USA.

On the other side, the US seems to judge the relationship with much less sentiments. The UK is a key ally in the world and in particular in Europe. It is the country which provides the biggest military support to the US in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, the Americans visibly see this ally with very pragmatic eyes. It is with irony that the anxiety about a possible lack of interest from the US in the special relationship is related in the cables: "This period of excessive UK speculation about the relationship is more paranoid than usual … This over-reading would often be humorous, if it were not so corrosive." The cable states that it would be tempting to take advantage of the British insecurity: "keeping HMG (Her Majesty Government=the British government) off balance about its current standing with us might make London more willing to respond favorably when pressed for assistance, Though the cable rejects this strategy as short termist, having a British public believing in the "special relationship" is more valuable to the US in the long term: "a UK public confident that the USG (US Government) values those contributions and our relationship matters to U.S. national security."

This very pragmatic approach to the relationship is also revealed in what the US grants to the UK: not much. When Gordon Brown went the extra mile to make a personal request as a British PM for a British hacker (Gary McKinnon) to be imprisoned in Britain, his plea was spurned by the Obama administration. Another cable shows American commercial backstabbing: the US lobbied Zapatero to overrule the Spanish military which had chosen the British company Rolls Royce for a £90millions helicopter engine contract. Rolls Royce lost the contract to the American company General Electric.

Time to review aspirations downwards?

The leaks show that for the US their relationship with the UK is primarily pragmatic and driven by what they see as their best interest. As Paul Reynolds, BBC World Affair correspondent states " if, or probably more likely when, the day arrives when the Brits cannot or will not offer so much, they will find that the relationship they still regard as "special" will be very much more ordinary."

In that context the prospect of the UK in the special relationship are not too encouraging. The cables reveal what the US really think of the UK military help in Afghanistan. It is well known that the British army is "low tech" relative the US and for this reason faces more casualties on the field of battle. As a consequence British armies in Afghanistan have often chosen to stay in their bases, losing the control of the main part of the area they are expected to pacify. US cables condemn this strategy and describe situations which are getting worse and not better in places were British troops are located. With severe budget cuts in Defence, Britain is unlikely to be able to support a full size operation like the Iraq invasion or Afghanistan in the future. This key element which makes the UK an important ally to the US is therefore fading.

At the same time, the cables reflect the rising importance of China for the USA. One cable states that "In the first two G-20 Financial Summits, U.S. and Chinese positions had been close, closer even than the United States and Europe". Another cable from the American ambassador in China describes how "China's growing position as a nation increasingly distinct from the less-developed world may expand our common interests". With this emerging G-2, the position of the UK on the sidelines of the EU may affect negatively its strategic importance for the USA.

Most British people with common sense understand that the UK cannot have the status of an equal partner in the relationship. In 2009 several MPs even asked to ditch the use of the word in international relations, branding it as misleading. At a time when the UK is slowly losing its strategic importance for the US, choosing to stay on the sidelines of the European Union and placing a renewed emphasis on an idealised "crucial" "special relationship" may not be the best bet for Britain.