Two centuries on, how Special has this Relationship been?

It must rank as one of the most spectacular early Christmas presents ever.  Exactly two hundred years ago, representatives of the British and American governments met in the Flemish city of Ghent to agree a Peace Treaty, ending the increasingly-misnamed War of 1812.  OK, it did not mean that all the fighting was yet over: the two countries’ armies would meet in one final battle in New Orleans just over two weeks later, in which the Americans comprehensively thrashed their British enemies.  This was before the age of the telegraph, never mind the telephone, fax, and internet, so it would not be until 17 February – over a month after the Battle of New Orleans, and nearly two after the Treaty had been signed – that news of the peace agreement could arrive in Washington.

Amedee Forestier's 1914 painting of diplomats in Ghent in 1814.

Amedee Forestier’s 1914 painting of diplomats in Ghent in 1814.

Nevertheless, the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on that momentous Christmas Eve means that we can celebrate two centuries of peace (at least in the legal sense) between the world’s two leading English-speaking powers, and thereafter the opportunity for a relationship – special or otherwise – to develop between them. 

It was never always so easy and harmonious: there were two occasions during the Civil War of 1861-5 in which the British and Americans came very close to war for a third time – indeed, the tacit British policy of supplying the Confederacy led some soldiers on the Union side to chant ‘After the South (ie after they had defeated the Confederacy) we’ll go North (ie they would invade Canada – then known as British North America).’  Thankfully, things did not get that bad, and relations did improve, to the extent that they would later be allies in two world wars and a number of other ones.  Talk of a Special Relationship between America and Britain is certainly understandable, in the light of their shared history, but the truth is that the Relationship has really been no more or less Special than any other in international relations.

Advocates of the idea of a British-American Special Relationship often point to the close co-operation between the two states in the fields of intelligence and military operations.  Such co-operation has, though, also existed between Britain and other members of NATO since it was formed in 1949.  Belief in such a Relationship also tends to be more prevalent in Britain than the States – with more Americans considering their relationship with Canada to be closer, if the polls are right.  A leader in The Economist in July 2008 noted how American politicians frequently use the term “special relationship” when talking about the US’s links with Israel, Germany, and South Korea.

There have been frequent times, of course, when a positive personal rapport between American and British leaders has helped their countries’ political relations: think FDR and Churchill, Kennedy and Macmillan, Reagan and Thatcher, Clinton and Blair and then Bush Jnr and Blair.  The belief among various British heads of government that they have a unique hotline to the White House has certainly acted as an ego boost for them.  Harold Macmillan’s rather patronising idea that Britain should act as “Greeks in this American empire”, was, while comforting to many among the postwar elite in Whitehall, also irritating to policymakers in Washington.  The author Peter Riddell has written that ‘while not expressed publicly after the 1960s, this thought still persisted in the minds of some British politicians and diplomats for a long time afterwards.

This thought has also persisted for much longer among key sections of the British media.  Professor Stephen Haseler of the Global Policy Institute is among a number of commentators who have wondered about the relative silence in the popular press in recent years about Britain’s links with the United States, in contrast to those with the EU.  In his book “The Grand Delusion”, he writes:

There were no press campaigns by the “patriotic” press against the “special relationship”; no systematic questioning of the unequal closeness of the American and British leaderships; and no Washington bogeymen to equal the Brussels Eurocrats.  Indeed, this great contradiction was exemplified by the lives of the leading media moguls themselves.  For, intriguingly, while their papers pumped out patriotic messages – “proud to be British”, “sovereignty under threat from foreigners” – these same media moguls were living and working for much of their lives in foreign lands‘.

The eagerness among British governments to pay obeisance to American interests reached a nadir during the 2003 Iraq War, when Tony Blair committed troops to joining the land war, even though the Bush Administration had made it clear that they would have been content with mere British diplomatic support.  Speaking for millions, the liberal commentator Hugo Young, in his last column for The Guardian before dying in September 2003, wrote in a piece entitled “Under Blair, Britain has ceased to be a sovereign state”:

There’s been a tremendous amount of talk about sovereignty in recent years.  It became, and remains, the keynote issue at the heart of our European debate…What it means to be an independent nation is a question that touches the wellsprings of a people’s being.  Yet it is one that our leader, as regards this war, has simply disguised from his people, egged on by sufficient numbers of North American papers and journalists who seem to be wholly delighted at the prospect of surrendering it.

It later transpired that among Blair’s motives for allying Britain so closely with the Bush Administration was the prospect of making real progress in resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.  It appears not to have occurred to him that a Republican government in Washington would simply fail to keep their side of the bargain: beyond making one or two public pronouncements of a “road map” to peace and a “two-state solution”, Bush and Cheney did very little. 

Perhaps the term Dysfunctional Relationship would be a more apposite term, in the light of the recent diplomatic history between America and Britain.  It is important for both countries to have good relations, but they have to be based on proper mutual respect and good faith, as well as genuine mutual co-operation on matters of mutual interest.  Not every decision the US takes on the world stage will be in Britain’s best interests, or vice versa – and the movers and shakers in Westminster would do well to remember that.  Lord Henry Palmerston, who was Britain’s Prime Minister at the time of the American Civil War – the last occasion of a major diplomatic spat between the two countries – summarised what he considered to be an effective foreign policy thus:

We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies.  Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.

Spoken like a true American.

Season’s Greetings, one and all.

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  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank goodness that the USA tends to have a pretty ahistorical view of these things. The old 27th foot (later “the Inniskilling Fusileers”) were the boys who burnt down the White House in 1814.

  • Mister_Joe

  • Gopher

    Fortunately for the USA a couple of important people understood the war of 1812 unlike the rest of world outside the UK, namely Theodore Roosevelt who wrote about and reasearched the conflict while at Harvard and the legendary naval theorist A T Mahan. Mahan being scathing of America’s performance during the war especially once Napoleon had been defeated. Until that point the US had rode on the Emperors back. From those two visionaries who both could see beyond a meaningless victory when the issue had been decided elsewhere came the birth of modern American Seapower. Now if only we had historians and politicians like that maybe 1916 and 1690 would be put in their proper place.

  • tmitch57

    Very interesting post Dan. But a couple of factual corrections are in order. First, the two countries actually probably came closer to blows over Venezuela in the 1890s than during 1863. The Trent affair in 1861 was solved simply enough by releasing the two Confederate diplomats who had been seized off of the British mail ship in late 1861 and Secretary of State William Seward issuing an official apology. After the war Britain paid serious money for outfitting the Alabama and other commerce raiders for the Confederacy. Second, while the special relationship with Israel is often compared with that of the U.S. and Britain, the latter lacks the fireworks of the former because Israel is an American client state and an occasionally resentful one whereas Britain is a financially independent ally. While Canada has a very important economic relationship with the U.S. as its largest trading partner, Canada has never been a great power like Britain and thus Ontario does not begin to compare with London as a foreign ally. Very few Americans can name the Canadian provinces–usually only those in the northern border states can only name the neighboring provinces.

  • tmitch57

    Gopher, there was a popular American ballad by a Country Western singer in the 1950s about the Battle of New Orleans that was of the “we kicked the Pope” variety.

  • Mister_Joe

    You can see it above.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you for that Gopher. My father was a sailor escorting US convoys during the war, and I’m a bit of an admirer of Teddy myself.

    I keep mentioning this on Slugger, but it’s my contribution to putting “1916 and 1690….. in their proper place”.

    Scott is a nice American boy who has re-constructed and clarified a very important misconception that blights our own history in the wee six:

    “Based on a rich array of newly discovered archival sources, Scott Sowerby’s groundbreaking history rescues the repealers from undeserved obscurity, telling the forgotten story of men and women who stood up for their beliefs at a formative moment in British history. By restoring the repealer movement to its rightful prominence, Making Tolerationalso overturns traditional interpretations of King James II’s reign and the origins of the Glorious Revolution. Though often depicted as a despot who sought to impose his own Catholic faith on a Protestant people, James is revealed as a man ahead of his time, a king who pressed for religious toleration at the expense of his throne. The Glorious Revolution, Sowerby finds, was not primarily a crisis provoked by political repression. It was, in fact, a conservative counter-revolution against the movement for enlightened reform that James himself encouraged and sustained.”

    I’ve done quite a bit of primary source research in this field myself, and can recommend Scott’s book unreservedly.

  • Gopher

    Popular history is a funny thing, Im sure the song does not mention Canada is still is not American , Napoleon was at his zenith and England was alone when the US declared war. Likewise the Sash does not mention Louis XIV being at war with the whole of Europe and his logistical difficulties due the “incompetence” of his naval campaign in 1690 giving the Boyne “factitcious celebrity” according to our friend mentioned above A.T. Mahan. It is said even Sherman detested the popular song “Marching through Georgia” but then again Mahan and Sherman never worried about being popular just being right.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Gopher, I’m wondering just what A.T. Mann actually meant regarding naval “incompetence” in 1690. The great display of naval incompetence in the Nine Years War was by the combined English and Dutch fleets! The great sea battle of the year was the Battle of Beachy Head where the French Navy crushingly defeated the Anglo-Dutch fleet, driving them into the Thames and gained control of the English channel just before the Boyne. Wikipedia states that “The battle was the greatest French tactical naval victory over their English and Dutch opponents during the war.” The Irish regiments in France who had recently fought in Savoy under Nicholas Catinat were ready on the channel coast to meet James on his return from Ireland on order to take advantage of Beachy Head and to escort the king back to England where almost all those political grandees who had expelled him in 1688 were now all too ready to welcome him back, and be rid of the onerious Dutchman, who was effectivly trapped in Ireland after the Boyne by French control of the sea. Cloudsley Shovell’s small English squdron, which had been too ineffective to defend the Irish sea even before the French victory, could now offer the Princeof Orange no protection against the victorious French fleet.

    The only reason that King James would not actually return to London by August was a series of heavy July storms that stopped the barges that would carry the Irish “old Brigade” from crossing the channel. So the Boyne’s “factitcious celebrity” possibly refers to the reality that his “victory” almost sent William ignominiously back to Holland, something he was only saved from by some bad weather! How very many historical decisions turn out not to be at all as inevitable as “Our Island Story” would try to fool us into believing but would actually hang on similar knife edge tricks of blind fate!!!

  • Gopher

    Mahan quite logically to my mind argues that Louis entered the war without a single ally. The French Navy was stronger than both the English and Dutch and more efficient at the start of the war and infact he argues for 15 months it could do as it pleased. It was strong enough to defeat Royal Navy attempts to interdict the flow of troops to Ireland at Bantry Bay for example. But he failed to coordinate it with his strategy in Ireland enabling Derry to be relieved, Schomberg to be landed and the RN stopping Stuarts on both sides of the Irish sea the ability to cooperate. The French fleet was idle in the Irish sea during the summer months. He believes it was “incompetent” to throw away the Victory of Beachy Head and “its great though partial results”. Tourville in failing to initiate a “general chase” and kept his speed a quick as his slowest boat enabled the salvation of the Allied Navy. The day after William landed with an Army in Ireland. Which was the greater victory? By 1691 the Allied Fleet outnumbered the French and in 1692 the French Navy was removed from the board at La Hogue

    The interesting thing about the history of the Royal Navy and in Mahans work illuminates this, they lost a lot of Battles and ships but won wars. Suffren for example beat Hughes practically every time they met yet France lost India.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you, Gopher, for the careful unpacking of Mahan’s work. I’m not a “grand narrative” man myself on these issues, and the inevitability of the defeat of Louis that my Bandon Protestant history master tried to beat into me was resisted by the influence of a very historically astute grandfather who had actually fought as an officer in two wars. From him I learnt not to be carried away by the slipstream of canonic narrative, but to look for the exceptions to narrative flow and for those events decided by chance, as in this war.

    Despite being the most successful monarch in Europe, Louis was still facing a Grand Alliance against him for the first time after a series of highly successful wars. My father in law was a racing dingy sailor, and from those times I went out with him, I’m all too aware of the problems of weather and how it effects sail. The man covering William’s rear in “the Irish Sea” was lost with his entire fleet in 1707 in one of the greatest maritime disasters in British history when caught in a desperate gale such as raged in July 1690. I’m less inclined to criticise men without steam or oil engines in their boats for “incompetence” in naval matters. All too many arm chair historians, including “the legendary naval theorist A T Mahan” do this, but Mahan, as someone only a few decades past sail, should have known better than to simply discount weather.

    Mahan is very much a Grand Narrative man, who simply sweeps over the sort of detail I find actually explains much in history. His influential book “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660–1783” relies entirely (and rather uncritically) on secondary sources, which Mahan deploys with all the assurance in their utter rightness of more recent historians besotted with Marx’s historical determinism! His rather simplistic picture of the role of the Royal Navy (incidentally, created by James II during the Dutch Wars) in developing British world power and his suggestion that the USA emulated this model slavishly (“imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”) are seriously open to question. While I recognise the simple analysis of Beachy Head you quote from Wikipedia, I’d just wish to point out that the all important words (Mahan’s) that your comment on the failure to initiate general chase leaves out ” ‘Kept line of battle’, reducing the speed of the fleet to the slowest ships.” With a beaten enemy, badly mauled, but retreating in order themselves, its all very well for Mahon to suggest that the French Admiral Tourville should have broken ranks to skirmish, courting a reversal of his defeat of the Anglo-Dutch. At the end of the engagement Tourville had achieved the all important strategic gaol of trapping his enemies in the narrow waters of the Thames. Had foul weather not intervened, his ability to use an intact French fleet to convey James over the channel and effect civil war in England would have made any further gains at Beachy Head irrelevant. Mahan downplays the precariousness of William’s position in England during these weeks while he was abscent in Ireland, but I’ve actually read the primary source material that Mahan did not look at, and come to a very different conclusion. Mahan is all too besotted with the idea that because a thing has happened in history, it was meant to happen, a very, very Victorian failing.

    And never forget the enormous advantage Britain had in being an island, for while the “Royal Navy…..lost a lot of Battles and ships but won wars” this is in essence due to the inability of a continental enemy to simply invade! The result of the Great Armada campaign or Napolean’s threatened invasion, or even 1940 would probably have been very, very different if Britain’s foes had a land border to simply cross.

  • Gopher

    My copy of “The Influence of Sea Power” is in about 3 bits it has been read so much though I much prefer my audio book version . I dont really need to use Wiki, my library is quite extensive and qualitive as well. Tunstall who dovetails with Mahan believed “Tourville was not quick enough to appreciate what was happening” when the wind dropped. Mahan is not to everyones taste but I assure you his central premise is Louis, Tourville and James had choices and did not take them. Though a biographer of Nelson, Influence details what France and Holland could have done to end the Royal Navy dominance at sea. His motive in “Influence” which is obvious throughout the book is to wake America up to challenge Britain and throughout the book champions France’s position to become a maritime power. Hardly a champion of historical determinism, and probably the only situation where one can sacrifice objectivity. Look at it as a slightly more technical “Riddle of the Sands”. No point Childers writing about an omnipotent fleet threatening England, people would have laughed, it had to be subtafuge from the cunning Hun.
    But I much prefer the polar opposite military theorists, Clausewitz and Tolstoy, objectivity and certainty both have their place. So you see Seaan, Mahan is like yourself , he set out to prove America could be a world power you set out to prove everyone liked James. At least one of you was right.

  • tmitch57

    “but Mahan, as someone only a few decades past sail, should have known better than to simply discount weather.”

    Mahan served as a naval officer during the American Civil War, and probably during the Mexican War as well. He composed his lectures that eventually became “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History” while he was an instructor in the 1870s. During this whole time the U.S. Navy was still predominantly a sail-propelled navy. It was only the brown-water riverine navy that was steam powered and the U.S. did not develop a modern coal-fired ironclad navy until the 1890s when it lagged behind many South American powers.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Gopher, “Mahan is not to everyones taste but I assure you his central premise is Louis, Tourville and James had choices and did not take them.”

    The point I’m trying to make is not a contradiction of that, everyone makes mistakes, but sometimes a commander is acting in a situation with limited choices and cannot act outside of circumstance as Mahan is demanding they should do. As an historian myself, I deplore the tendency of these “grand narrative” writers to simply point out failure, while ignoring the effects of other issues such as weather or on the spot decisions about how to act against a beaten enemy who has not yet had his order of battle dispersed. Tunstall is perfectly right in mentioning the failure of Turville to act fast on the dropping wind (and incidently on the ebbing tide that carried his becalmed ships away from the Anglo-Dutch fleet) but I still hear the voices of the real soldiers I listened to in my youth who had actually fought in the Great War, speaking of the problems faced when you are in the midst of an action. For example, how would you or Mahan have acted to counteract the failing wind? Stoked up the engines? Turville actually did use longboats and oar to tow his ships in order to try and counter his becalming, but the conditions were entirely against him. Fighting ships require more than proximity to an enemy and there is a limit to how much movement you can squeeze from a failing or contrary wind by tacking into it. Absence of wind entirely removes the advantage of manouverability that Tourville had used to break his enemy, while leaving him just as vulnerable as his foe. If Tourville had “attacked” with the recklesness Mahan demands of him in these conditions then Mahan would not have been writing about a victory at Beachy head, but, at best, about another ugly mutual mauling such as marked much of seventeenth century naval warfare, or even a French defeat. Both Louis and Tourville, in their caution, were playing for much bigger stakes, and having sucessfully disabled an enemy in a manner he could have exploited fully if the weather had favoured him, Tourville was, I feel, serving his king’s policy by taking the most logical decision at the time and in that place. My own reading is that with favourable weather and French command of the seas, James would have been in London by late July, Britian would have been knocked out of the war, and the final breaking of a British fleet would have been unnecessary as it would have been an ally of France. These were the real stakes on the table, and only bad luck prevented this counterfactual from coming about.

    For my views on Mahan’s experience as a sailor, and what authority he can draw on in taht context, see my reply to tmitch57 above.

    The issue is very simple. Mahan is a man of his time, sunk in the grand narrative of military determanism that was the fashionable view of his day. His theme is the utter correctness of British actions and decisions in naval matters, something he never challenges, and his belief that the US should emulate Britian is of an expression of this. All this he has gleaned from reading other commentators rather than from direct primary source research, and his evident belief that his secondary sources are offering unchallengable facts places him firmly in the hardcore determanist camp, the certainty of the historically blind. After, as just one example, Michael Foucault’s work, such certainties are not available to any responsible historical researcher today, only to the writer of historical fiction. Mahan is simply wrong in some of his deductions, and Beachy Head is a case in point!

    And I do share your concerns about the limitations of Wikipedia, especially as I’m one of those who creates pages or corrects the work of others on the site. The problem is that I cannot refer other Slugger readers to your extensive library or mine, so in that context Wikipedia offers some opening up or unpacking of what we are discussing, but not in the kind of real depth I’d personally prefer.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Which, tmitch57, makes it all the more culpable that Mahan fails to take account of those issues such as tide and wind in the case of Tourville’s actions at Beachy Head. I hear constantly in his writing that bar bore Harry Enfield used to portray, going on, “Tourville, Tourville, don’t do that, smash ’em boats good mate!”

    About his active naval career Wikipedia tells us:

    “Despite his success in the Navy, his skills in actual command of a ship were not exemplary, and a number of vessels under his command were involved in collisions, with both moving and stationary objects……. he tried to avoid active sea duty.”

    I think that underlines my point quite eloquently. His discounting of important issues of weather and the handling of large numbers of ships in his writings is pretty much of a piece with his woeful record as a practical sailor. He is very much the armchair theoritician, pontificating. Personally, I find his historical assessments derivitive, based entirely on late secondary sources, many of whom were British historians praising the sagacity and utter correctness of British sailor’s actions during these engagements, and very few of the historians he employs in his work would have had any knowledge of actively handling large ships in gales or in calm, something they may even share with Mahan. Mahan parrots their work without, seemingly, re-assessing the fighting conditions that even his uncomfortable personal experience of sail should have encouraged him to take into account. In this tendancy to prefer generalised conclusions to the difficult texture of uncomfortable reality Mahan is far from alone amongst the big grand narrative Victorian period historians, but it puts a serious limitation on how seriously his detailed accounts of naval engagements should be taken by anyone seriously engaging with actual history. Mahan simply offers the modern reader a more detailed US oriented version of the “Our Island Story” narrative, something unfit even for children!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    We’d both mentioned Teddy Roosevelt earlier. I think his noted comments on critics parallel my own thinking in this Mahan/Tourville issue:

    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

    And perhaps, “The only man who never makes mistakes is the man who never does anything.”

  • Gopher

    I sail regularly so I make plenty of mistakes 😀 and I am at an advantage of actually having read Mahan, I’m also well travelled and have visited the Natural History Museum in New York where Teddy’s sage words are immortalised on the walls. As for veterans I actually have known a couple. The only addition I would make to Wiki is put a warning on each article stating that it might have been written or corrected by a partizan.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Gopher, this is all getting rather personal! While I’ve been trying to keep our exchanges as a friendly discussion using my own reading of Mahan and about forty years of my own historical research, you appear to be moving it from the criticism of a rather “historically situated” military theorist to the suggestion that I am “partizan” simply for putting forward interpretations you do not appear to understand! You, as I remember it, were the one suggesting above that “one can sacrifice objectivity” in certain situations, which must be your current tack to avoid discussing the serious implications of Mahan’s strangely cavalier inability to take measure of the weather and tide issues at Beachy Head, and reverting to covert and overt insult in place of debate.

    Rather “under the belt” dig, that last Wikipedia comment! For the record, I put together all my contributions to Wikipedia as I would undertake any professional work in this field, with scrupulious objectivity, strongly supported by references and notes. The few challenges to points I’ve made that have been raised from “partizan” sources have all been rejected through adjudication during the disambiguation process and the issues I’ve raised entirely upheld. The disambiguation process sifts out eccentric material that cannot be supported by scholarship, so making the “warning” you suggest rather redundant.

    And it helps in producing real, credible history to be fully aware of current scholarship in a field, rather than simply parroting long out of date writers using secondary sources which fail to stand up to close critical scrutiny! I’m afraid that, despite the advantage of your “extensive and qualitive” library, the findings of current historical research seems to be well out of your radar, so the seismic shifts in the historical interpretation of the so called “Glorious Revolution” appears to have entirely passed you by. Is it that you cannot even begin to accept that the historical myths one portion of our community have rooted their political culture in, the misnamed “Glorious Revolution” was a propaganda exercise, a simple tissue of lies, and the expulsion of a liberal and moderate king was in fact for political and commercial self interest? Read Sowerby, man, and have your eyes opened. If you are going to respond to my points with an entirely closed mind, an “I’m right, you’re wrong” refusal to seriously discuss issues, I can see no value in continuing this as an exercise in simply trading insults.