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.

Based in Birmingham, Dan is a journalist, broadcaster and actor.