The Special Relationship: A Star-Spangled Friendship

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is the first half of a two-part miniseries in which the FBB staff, with the help of a guest writer, will reexamine Britain and America’s special relationship.


John O. Sullivan
“England and America are two nations divided by a common language”
-George Bernard Shaw, Irish Writer

The US and UK have an extensive and complex history together. In 1946, at the close of the Second World War and at the dawn of what would become known as the Cold War, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave his now-famous “The Sinews of Peace” speech on the future of Democracy and Peace in a world that had been ravaged by two World Wars in thirty years. He said this on the role of the US and UK in the future United Nations:

There is however an important question we must ask ourselves. Would a special relationship between the United States and the British Commonwealth be inconsistent with our over-riding loyalties to the World Organisation? I reply that, on the contrary, it is probably the only means by which that organisation will achieve its full stature and strength.

And so, Winston Churchill not only heralded the start of an era where the United States and Great Britain would be two of the most influential voices on the world stage, but he also coined the phrase “Special Relationship” to describe the extraordinarily close political, economic, and cultural ties between the U.S. and U.K.. With so much change afoot in the world today, and with Donald Trump’s scheduled state visit to the U.K. to be debated by Parliament next week, it seemed as natural a time as any to reexamine the relationship between the UK and US, from both the perspective of an American and the perspective of a former Brit.

As an American, of course I know that when my nation was born, the British were a dire enemy. They had sought to control us unilaterally, and when we asked for a voice in our own governance, for the citizens of the American colonies to be treated as equals to the citizens of the British Isles, we were flatly denied again and again, for the British did not see us as equals, but as children to be seen and not heard.

As a native of Baltimore, I also know full well the history of “The Forgotten War” of 1812 where the British, having not learned their lesson 30 years earlier, came back for another ass whooping. We Marylanders were happy to oblige them. It was such an epic beatdown that they even wrote a song about it.

But, some time in the late 19th century, things started to change and all that animosity began to fade away. The first transatlantic cable running from Canada to Ireland brought two sides of the Atlantic closer together than ever before.The British developed the first steam engines, and Americans used them to settle the West. We gave them Jazz music, they gave us the Beatles. They accepted proper democracy, and we didn’t rub it in their faces too badly. Over the years the United States and United Kingdom became, if not a united people, then two peoples with a united purpose: Peace and Democracy (with a little flavoring of Imperialism). America came to Britain’s (and Democracy’s) rescue not once but twice in less than thirty years, and those two wars forged our nations’ friendship into a seemingly unbreakable bond. Millions of men from both countries returned home knowing a good deal more about each other than they had known before, and that had a substantial, if unmeasurable, cultural impact.

The Cold War served only to further unite our governments. The French showed their usual equivocation by helping to found NATO and the UN, and then pulling out of NATO, which left the United Kingdom and U.S. as the clarion voice of the West and of Capitalism on the World Stage. The Cold War led to the integration of our economies and militaries, and the formation of the still-active NATO alliance (suck it, communism). As America’s military and economic power grew rapidly in the 50s and onward, it became clear who the true leader of the Western Coalition was. Not just symbolically, but diplomatically, economically, militarily, and culturally, the United States was the undisputed leader of the Capitalist West. When once the British Empire was the most powerful nation in the world, now it was the United States of America. As Britain once looked on America as a child, now America looks on Britain as a sort of little brother. Someone who should be supported and liked, even if they annoy you a bit sometimes.

And since then, not too much has changed. In 2015, Gallup ran a poll asking Americans how they felt about various other nations in the world. 90% of Americans had a favorable view of Great Britain, which was topped only by the 92% of people who had a favorable view of “America’s Hat,” Canada. America also has a $1.5 Billion trade surplus with the UK, so we have no reason to have any trade envy (CHINAAAAA!!!!!). Britain also wasn’t afraid to have our backs in Iraq, so uhhh… thanks for that.

It is also worth nothing that great political movements in the U.S. and U.K. often mirror each other. The first (and only) British general strike happened at the same time that American labor unions were stretching their legs and turning into a force to be reckoned with. The conservative sentiment that elected and then re-elected Ronald Reagan also brought on the rise of Margaret Thatcher. Similarly, even though Tony Blair was not well-aligned with George W. Bush on domestic politics, they were in lockstep on foreign policy. This is why the current political situation in both countries makes so much sense. During the summer of 2016, Great Britain voted in referendum to leave the European Union, leading to the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron. Just a few months later, with seemingly the same mindset of populism and isolationism, the United States voted to make Donald Trump its next President. It seems impossible to escape the notion that what affects one of us affects us both. We are two nations more united than any in history, and in short, we Americans might not have much to say about you Brits, but it’s all positive and we love having you around.


Click here for the second half of the installment, covering the British perspective on the “special relationship,” by guest writer, good friend, and British ex-pat I.V. Williams.

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