In 1946, during a speech in Fulton, Mo., Winston Churchill declared that “a special relationship” existed between the United Kingdom and the United States. Ever the visionary, Churchill believed this “fraternal association” would be characterized by “growing friendship,” “intimate relationship between our military advisers,” “common study of potential dangers,” “similarity of weapons and manuals,” “the interchange of officers” and “joint use of all naval and Air Force bases.” He even mused about the prospect of “common citizenship.”
Washington and London never got quite that far, but Churchill was on to something. Seventy years later, the “special relationship” binding America and Britain still serves as the cornerstone of virtually every major diplomatic and military project in which the United States engages – and by extension, the cornerstone of the liberal global order these united nations began building in 1941.
‘EVEN TO THE END’ America and Britain were anything but united before the world wars. They fought in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and almost came to blows in the early 1900s.
Yet the foundation of close collaboration was always there. Less than a decade after the end of the War of 1812, Britain and the United States collaborated to secure this hemisphere against European intervention. When it appeared that European powers would try to reassert control over newly independent countries in South America, as historian John Lewis Gaddis notes, the British “suggested a joint Anglo-American statement ruling out future European colonization in the Western Hemisphere.” The Monroe administration turned “the British proposal into a unilateral pronouncement” – the Monroe Doctrine – calculating, rightly, that the British navy would in effect enforce U.S. policy because of a confluence of interests.
The United States bankrolled the British in World War I, fought alongside them in the decisive final year of the war, and by the 1930s the two nations were sharing intelligence about Japan. But it wasn’t until World War II that the great liberal democracies started to recognize that their relationship was indeed special.
After Dunkirk, Churchill shared his desperate dream of a day when “the new world, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
As Britain fought alone against Hitler, President Franklin D. Roosevelt opened the “great arsenal of democracy” to help Churchill fend off the Nazis. Then, in early 1941, Roosevelt’s envoy to Britain, Harry Hopkins, rose during a dinner with Churchill and quoted from the Book of Ruth: “Whither thou goest I will go, and whither thou lodgest I will lodge. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God,” he declared, dramatically adding, “even to the end.” Churchill wept openly.
Later in that pivot-point year of 1941, Churchill and Roosevelt rendezvoused in the North Atlantic to craft a statement of shared values that would outline their war aims and bind their countries together in building a durable postwar peace. It was called the Atlantic Charter. By signing on to the Atlantic Charter, with its implicit rejection of imperialism, Churchill was effectively signing off on the dissolution of the British Empire. As historian Niall Ferguson observes, “The British regarded a transfer of global power to the United States as the best available outcome of the war.”
Ever since, the United States and Britain have stood together, bled together, led together.
During the war, British troops served under U.S. command, and Americans under British command. The two allies created a Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS) to coordinate strategy, operations and tactics. In his history of World War II, Gerhard Weinberg notes that the CCS forced the Americans to adopt a standing structure for interservice coordination, and that yielded a vast web of subcommands, procedures and relationships that paved the way for the eventual creation of NATO.
The Anglo-American alliance deepened after the war, enfolding cooperation on trade and monetary issues, intelligence sharing, weapons procurement and development, military basing and training, and strategic military doctrine. By the mid-1950s, Britain and America agreed, in the words of a Pentagon memo, to “coordinate the atomic strike plans of the United States Air Force with the Royal Air Force” and share “atomic bombs in the event of general war.”
FRIENDSHIP Thanks to Anglo-American resolve, the Cold War was won without those bombs ever falling.
Although the two partners have had occasional disagreements – Suez and Vietnam come to mind – they have been nearly inseparable in navigating the postwar world. Together they rescued West Berlin, forged NATO and deterred the Red Army. They defended Korea at the beginning of the Cold War, liberated Kuwait at the end and faced down Moscow in the years between. They shepherded Eastern Europe toward freedom and stabilized the Balkans. They ousted the Taliban, disarmed Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein. Today, they are blunting the Islamic State’s advance and fighting jihadism.
Those in-between years included smaller crises that had a big impact. When Argentina invaded Britain’s Falkland Islands, for example, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher vowed to reverse the aggression. President Ronald Reagan told his staff, “Give Maggie everything she needs.” Washington allowed the British expeditionary force to use the U.S. air base at Ascension Island for resupply, provided Britain weaponry and logistics support, and was prepared to loan the Royal Navy the amphibious carrier USS Iwo Jima.
Thatcher returned the favor when Reagan asked Britain to allow FB-111s to deploy from British bases for airstrikes against Libya’s command-and-control assets and terror-training facilities. “It made America realize that Britain was her real and true friend,” Thatcher said.
In 1998, when the United Nations lost interest in enforcing its own resolutions, only Britain sent warplanes to assist the United States in targeting Iraq’s WMD sites. Then, as Britain and America began to contemplate military operations to protect Kosovo, Prime Minister Tony Blair recalled Hopkins’ toast during a summit with President Bill Clinton. This time, it was America’s leader who wept.
When war came to America’s shores, Blair rushed to its side. “America has no truer friend than Great Britain,” President George W. Bush declared before a joint session of Congress soon after 9/11. Fittingly, Blair was on hand. Through the smoke and blood and controversy that followed 9/11, Blair recognized that the war on terror was not just America’s war.
That war now spans 15 years, six national elections in Britain and the United States, four prime ministers, two presidents and too many fronts to count: Manhattan and Madrid, Kandahar and Karbala, Bali and Baghdad and Boston, Paris and Peshawar, Syria and San Bernardino, America’s Pentagon and Britain’s Underground, which brings us back to the depth of the “special relationship” today.
Fifteen years may seem like a long time to wage war, but British military commanders were ready for a lengthy war from the very beginning. In the autumn of 2001, Adm. Michael Boyce, then-chief of the British Defense Staff, grimly predicted that the war on terror “may last 50 years.”
COMBINED As the struggle against jihadism takes on the characteristics of the Cold War – in its duration, geopolitical and geographic scope, ideological dimensions, economic and human costs – it appears that the British and American militaries are moving beyond mere coordination and toward coalescence. Examples abound.
The British government’s 2015 defense review confirms that the United States and the United Kingdom plan “to fly aircraft from each other’s ships, and work together on operating them from the land and at sea.”
Toward that end, U.S. Marines will deploy F-35s on combat sorties from Britain’s Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers. Already, British pilots are flying operational missions from U.S. aircraft carriers to maintain their proficiency until the F-35s are ready.
Scores of U.S. Coast Guardsmen are serving with the Royal Navy. Some 9,000 U.S. troops are stationed in the United Kingdom, and 750 British personnel in the United States – in 30 different states. For instance, the RAF has a special unit at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, operating killer drones. British submarines port at the U.S. base in Kings Bay, Ga. Likewise, Britain allows the U.S. military to maintain bases on the British territory of Diego Garcia, and a number of U.S. assets nest at facilities in the United Kingdom: refueling and reconnaissance planes, missile-defense radars, F-15s and soon F-35s. After Moscow’s assault on Ukraine, the United States deployed B-52s and B-2s to Britain.
Britain recently opened a permanent naval base in Bahrain, which, not coincidentally, serves as headquarters for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
In 2011, the two allies formed a National Security Strategy Board to “develop a shared view of emerging challenges” and “how we should deal with them.” The board is co-chaired by the British and American national security advisers.
In 2013, then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert raised the prospect of British assets being blended into the Pentagon’s Global Force Management System, the process by which U.S. military chiefs determine where personnel and equipment are deployed.
“It would be unprecedented that two nations could bring together such a far-reaching strategic commitment,” Greenert said. “It is feasible, but it would be totally unprecedented.”
That same year, Britain’s entire Defense Staff huddled with the entire U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff – the first reconstitution of the CCS since 1948. They convened again in 2014.
Somewhere, Churchill is smiling.
CHALLENGES However, there are challenges confronting the “special relationship.”
There’s a sense in London that the United States has taken it for granted at times. When the Bush administration decided to go to war in Iraq, there was a perception that Britain was expected to fall in line, which triggered domestic political challenges for Blair.
When the Obama administration offloaded Guantanamo detainees onto the British territory of Bermuda, Washington failed to consult Britain. “This is not the kind of behavior one expects from an ally,” a British official declared.
Even worse, President Barack Obama publicly criticized Prime Minister David Cameron over Britain’s handling of Libya and Syria.
There’s a sense in Washington that Britain is retreating from the global stage.
Post-recession austerity measures undertaken by Cameron have led to deep cuts in Britain’s military strength. The Royal Navy ebbed from 89 ships to 65. Britain had two aircraft carriers in 2008 but has none today. The combat-aircraft fleet shrank from 189 warplanes to 149; the Joint Helicopter Command had 257 aircraft in 2008 but has just 164 today. The British Army’s Regular Forces have been whittled down from 101,340 troops to 84,240.
The 2015 defense review reverses some of these cuts. Before handing the reins to Theresa May in July, Cameron added $18 billion to planned defense spending over the next decade. Two new aircraft carriers will enter service by 2020. And Britain is purchasing 138 F-35s, new midair refuelers and new heavy-lift planes.
However, much of the damage has been done. Between 2007 and 2014, British defense spending fell by 5.5 percent. After 2010, Britain withdrew thousands of troops from continental Europe, delayed upgrades to its nuclear deterrent, and pulled back from operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan (the House of Commons in 2013 blocked Cameron’s efforts to launch airstrikes in Syria after the Assad regime used chemical weapons, and Britain now has just 450 troops in Afghanistan, fewer than Italy, Turkey, Romania, Germany or Georgia). It also used accounting tricks (shifting monies from the Foreign Office to the military) to keep defense spending above NATO’s 2-percent-of-GDP standard.
Moreover, the White House worries that Britain’s internal debate over European Union membership – and consequent withdrawal from the EU in the wake of the so-called “Brexit” referendum last June – is further evidence of disengagement. All of this has invited questions about Britain’s global role.
“Having the United Kingdom in the European Union gives us much greater confidence about the strength of the transatlantic union,” Obama said in 2015. (That only served to exacerbate British frustrations with Washington. By inserting himself into Britain’s politics, Obama drew criticism from 100 members of Parliament, who signed an open letter chiding the president.)
“We need an engaged United Kingdom,” says Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, expressing anxieties that Britain has taken “actions which seem to indicate disengagement.”
“I am very concerned about the GDP investment in the U.K.,” Army Gen. Ray Odierno adds. “In the past, we would have a British Army division working alongside an American division. Now it might be a British brigade inside an American division.”
When a Russian submarine was spotted off the Scottish coast, French and Canadian assets searched for the intruder, owing to the fact that Britain had scrapped its sub-hunting planes. Until recently, British operations against the Islamic State were limited to Iraq, prompting U.K. Defense Secretary Michael Fallon to observe, “The streets of Britain at the moment are being kept safe by American, Australian and French aircraft.”
However, in December, the House of Commons authorized airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria. Within hours, British warplanes joined their U.S. allies in the skies over Syria. Only the United States has conducted more airstrikes in Iraq than Britain. Moreover, Britain is basing a battalion of ground troops in Estonia as part of NATO’s defense of the Baltics. These are hopeful signs that Britain’s holiday from global leadership is over.
A strong Great Britain is key to the “special relationship,” and a strong “special relationship” is key to U.S. security. After all, Britain serves as a bridge to the world, a force-multiplier for U.S. power and a true friend in an unfriendly world.
As Churchill put it, the British Commonwealth and the United States, working together, have the capacity to yield “an overwhelming assurance of security … not only for us but for all, not only for our time, but for a century to come.”
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose (www.sagamoreinstitute.org/cap).