What's in a Special Relationship?
Justin Olmstead | 14 August 2020
◇ Political History | Modern History | Global History
NATO 3-cent 1952 U.S. stamp, issued at the White House on April 4, 1952, honored the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NATO_3c_1952_issue_U.S._stamp.jpg [Accessed 11 August 2020].
The recent decision by US President Donald Trump to remove some American troops from Germany has brought much consternation to the international community. One interesting twist that has found its way into the conversation occurred when Anthony Blinker, policy advisor to presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden commented that the move weakened NATO and harmed Germany, ‘our [America’s] most important ally in Europe.’ Many on both sides of the Atlantic gasped at this comment, but none more so than those in the United Kingdom. The truth of the matter is – and this may come as a shock to some – that the United States has never seen the Anglo-American relationship as special. Yes, there are cultural and linguistic commonalities, but when it comes to foreign policy, the United States’ view on Britain and Europe does not match that of an Anglo-American ‘special relationship’.
It would be fair to say that Winston Churchill’s consistent message of a Special Relationship between Great Britain and the United States has ingrained the phrase in the minds of most citizens of both countries. Nevertheless, from a governmental and policy position, it has traditionally been a one-sided relationship. American leaders have rarely used the phrase and even more rarely acted on it to the point that former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt is reported to have said the ‘British clam to have a special relationship with the US, but if you mention this in Washington, no one knows what you are talking about.’ This idea was reinforced during the Brexit debates when US President Barack Obama stated that the UK would find itself at the back of the queue in US trade negotiations. The last fifty years provides a clearer understanding of how the US views the ‘Special Relationship.’
It would also be fair to say that since the end of the Second World War, US Foreign Policy has focused on a strong Europe. The ‘Special Relationship,’ as a purely Anglo-American relationship, is very much a British view. This does not mean that the US has not or does not value Britain. What is often forgotten, intentionally or not, is the importance of Europe to US foreign and trade policy since 1945. During the Second World War, the US and Britain, along with the Soviet Union, stood side-by-side to defeat the Axis. Once the war was over, and the Cold War began, the relationship between the US and Britain changed. What began as a strategic and military partnership during the Second World War quickly morphed into a relationship between two unequal partners. Despite Britain’s continually diminishing status, US presidents from Truman to Clinton understood the value of working with the British to meet US foreign policy goals.
Nevertheless, US presidents have also focused on a strong Europe. Successive US presidents supported British involvement in different European projects. Dwight D. Eisenhower as Supreme Allied Commander Europe and later as President was firm in his belief that any plan to defend Europe required a British commitment to the continent. As such, he continually pushed Churchill, and later Eden and Macmillan, to take a more active role in NATO and the European Economic Community, which they eventually did.
The collapse and break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 left US leaders believing they did not need multilateral alliances. The US was and is, after all, the lone superpower. Since this time, presidents from both parties have chosen to ‘go it alone.’ In the meantime, Britain failed to stop its slide away from world power status. True, London remains one of the great financial centers in history but as a nation, they no longer have the military power to be more than a limited partner on the world stage. A no more shocking example of how far Britain’s defense capabilities have fallen can be found in the fact that the Royal Navy is now smaller than Pakistan’s navy and only slightly larger than Qatar’s, and the Royal Air Force is about the size of the Brazilian air force.
Under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, it appeared that the US was moving closer to Germany as its leading partner in European issues. This was not a new position, per se, and it was not a result of Germany’s military prowess (it is also struggling to maintain a large and functioning force) but due to its economic power. The US position since 1945 has been to forge a durable transatlantic link between the US and Europe. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Germany had the fourth-largest economy in the world with a GDP that was more than $1 trillion larger than that of Britain. What is often overlooked in all of the discussion about America pulling closer to Germany and further away from Britain, or about the withdrawal of US troops from Germany is Europe’s importance to the US.
A look at the Bank of England’s Quarterly Bulletin provides an idea of how important Europe is to the US relative to the UK. America’s most trusted trade partners are still the United Kingdom and Europe. As the year 2020 rolls towards the last quarter, Germany is feeling angst about its special relationship with the US. While the US president drives that anxiety, a reversal of roles may be in the offing. With US politics becoming less reliable in recent years, Europe might decide to no longer rely on the US and ‘go it alone,’ just as the US did in the 1990s. However, with reports that Johnson’s government is secretly ‘desperate’ for a Biden victory in hopes of a revived comprehensive trade plan the chances of a Europe without the US seem small. In light of Brexit, the UK might think about how the US has historically viewed the special relationship. For the US, the relationship that is and has always been special has been with Europe – a Europe that includes Britain.
Justin Quinn Olmstead is currently Associate Professor of History and Director of History Education at the University of Central Oklahoma with a Concurrent Appointment in the College of Arts and Humanities at Swansea University, Wales as Affiliate Faculty with responsibility for doctoral research supervision. He has edited two books, Reconsidering Peace and Patriotism during the First World War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), and Britain in the Islamic World: Imperial and Post-Imperial Connections (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). Dr. Olmstead has also published, The United States’ Entry into the First World War: The Role of British and German Diplomacy (Boydell & Brewer, 2018). He has contributed a chapter on the impact of military drones on foreign affairs in The Political Economy of Robots, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). Currently, he is the Assistant Editor for The Middle Ground Journal, Treasurer and Director of Membership for Britain and the World, and president elect of the Western Conference on British Studies. Just undertook his PhD at the University of Sheffield — you can find him on Twitter @OlmsteadJustin.
 Melvyn P. Leffler, A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), p. 61.
 Timothy Andrews Sayle, Enduring Alliance: A History of NATO and the Postwar Global Order (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019), p. 3.