This is an essay I wrote for a course on British and American politics at the University of York.

"The 'special relationship' was a product of the Cold War, but since the collapse of Communism it is no longer helpful in explaining Anglo-American relations"

1. Abstract

Anglo-American relations have been described by the term "special relationship" after the Second World War, since Britain and the United States have co-operated extensively in the areas of diplomacy, intelligence and nuclear weapons. In the major crises of the Cold War the countries usually agreed on a common policy; even the most critical phase in the relationship - the Suez crisis - did not permanently harm Anglo-American relations.

In this essay I shall argue that the first assumption in the title of this essay - that the special relationship was a product of the Cold War - is not wholly correct. For the British, more important was the rise of the United States to global power and the decline of Britain. The other essential consideration for Britain was her wish to retain the image of a world power. For the Americans, the threat of the Soviet Union was much more important in creating a need for the special relationship, but for them more general factors - such as culture - were important, too. Finally, I shall argue that while the collapse of Communism profoundly altered the international system, it did not render the special relationship irrelevant, since several of the factors contributing to it have not changed. Indeed, the new international situation created by the terrorist attacks of September 11 has renewed the importance of the alliance.

2. Why did Britain and the United States need a special relationship?

In general, the purpose of the special relationship from the British point of view was to use the rising power of the United States to further British interests (Treverton, 1990). Reynolds's quote from Foreign Secretary Ernst Bevin illustrates this well:

Britain should "exert sufficient control over the policy of the well-intentioned but inexperienced colossus on whose co-operation our safety depends... It can only be done by influencing the United States Government and people, not by opposing or discouraging them." (quoted in Reynolds, 1989: 97)

It should be noted that this had nothing to do with the Cold War as such, but was caused by the decline of British power and the rise of America. As early as 1917 the British accepted the importance of American power. A member of the British Cabinet pointed out that British and Continental views on international affairs differed, and that if the support of the United States for the British position could be secured, it would surely prevail (Reynolds, 1986).

Britain wanted to influence the United States in specific international crises, too. This is illustrated in the decision to send troops to fight in the Korean War - in this case, Britain feared American use of nuclear weapons, and wanted to be consulted. Britain also wanted to ensure the United States would not start a war with China (Reynolds, 1989; Reynolds, 1986; The Economist, 2001). This is an example of what Foreign Secretary Ernst Bevin meant when he said:

The British concept of the special relationship is "the use of the special cultural connection to help manage this new and unpredictable actor on the world stage." (quoted in Reynolds, 1989: 97)

British leaders liked to think of Britain as a wise counsellor to the impatient and trigger-happy Americans. Britain was seen as the Greece to America's Rome (Treverton, 1990; Reynolds, 1986).

The close relationship with the United States also helped Britain to keep up its image of being a great power, even though in reality it had become a second-rate power, and its position was still in decline. Buller argues that Britain needed to manage or reverse this decline so that it did not cause disruption to domestic politics. The special relationship enabled Britain to disguise its decline. The Cold War also gave Britain the chance to be seen as America’s principal ally against Communism (Buller, 2001), thus keeping up the image of not being just another power (Wallace, 1992).

Why did the United States need Britain? To understand this, it should be remembered that in reality Britain was not just another power, especially in the early years of the Cold War. Some Americans hoped that Britain would become an important third player in Cold War global politics. Harry Truman even contemplated a situation where the prime contenders of the new international order would be Britain and the Soviet Union, with the United States standing by the sidelines as an "impartial umpire" (Kagan, 2003: 17). Americans perceived Britain as an important power - one that was useful to have as an ally.

Even though clearly not the global hegemon it had used to be (Buller, 2001), Britain still had significant possession overseas (Heater, 1976). After Indian independence it was contemplated that the major British presence outside Europe should be in the Middle-East (Reynolds, 1986). During the 1960s it also seemed that the Indian Ocean was becoming an area of prime importance in the struggle against the Soviet Union, and thus the United States asked - and got - permission to construct a naval base on the British-owned island of Diego Garcia (Heater, 1976). This illustrates a more general point about Anglo-American relations in the Cold War - Britain no longer had the capacity to project force overseas, but was instrumental in helping the United States to do so (Reynolds, 1986; Heater, 1967; Beloff, 1986).

On a more general level, the special relationship has been explained in terms of culture. I think this point is vital. Coral Bell illustrates this very well by pointing out that the British were willing to twice suffer greatly to prevent a hegemony based on German military strength, and wholeheartedly participated on the Western side in the Cold War to ensure there would not be a Russian hegemony. The lack of a German or Russian hegemony meant a world order based on the might of American arms. Surely then there was some great difference in the British perception of on the one hand the Germans and Russians and on the other hand the Americans (Bell, 1972: 106).

Much can be said about the similar cultural heritage of the British and Americans, but a few points seem particularly relevant as regards the special relationship. The common language made communication that much easier (Treverton, 1990). Any American could converse with any Briton (Reynolds, 1989). The fact that the United States was originally a British colony is surely significant. It meant that people from both countries had a degree of common experience, which can be contrasted with both countries' relations to, say, Japan. William G. Hyland notes that the alliance of the United States with Japan was "more superficial" than the alliance between the United States and Europe because of the lack of a common culture (Hyland, 1999: 7). Clearly, this is even more true of the Anglo-American alliance, and is still relevant in the post-Cold War era.

3. Is the special relationship still relevant after the collapse of Communism?

Even more than in the Cold War, the United States is now the leading power in the Western World. Indeed, it is the leading power of the whole world, the only superpower. At the moment, there is no conventional challenge to the United States. The United States spends about five times as much on defence than either Russia or China, and approximately as much as the next eighteen military powers combined (O'Hanlon, 2002: 3).

Britain's situation is little changed. If in the early phases of the Cold War it still retained some imperial aspirations, these are in reality all but gone. There is no British Empire. However, British leaders still want to see Britain play more than a regional role in the world (The Economist, 2002). Indeed, Britain is much more capable of playing such a role than other European countries (excluding France and Russia), since it spends the most on defence (O'Hanlon, 2002: 5).

As in the Cold War, a close relationship with the United States gives Britain the opportunity to be seen as a major actor on the international stage. The new foreign policy of George W. Bush's administration (see, e.g., National Security Council, 2002) has made this even more apparent. It can hardly be disputed that Britain's role in the "war on terror" (Cabinet Office, 2002) has been more significant than, say, that of France. For instance, Britain took an active role in the military action against the Taliban in Afghanistan.(Cabinet Office, 2002) and sent more combat troops to Iraq than any country except the United States (, 2003).

The point about influence was not specific to the Cold War, either. Especially since the rise of the neo-conservative school of foreign policy in the United States (The Economist, 2003), American views on foreign policy differ markedly from those of the Europeans (Kagan, 2003), and in some cases indeed of the British. This makes the ability of Britain to influence American foreign policy even more relevant. The role of the United Nations is a case in point. In the run-up to the Iraq crisis, most European governments insisted on the need to get United Nations Security Council backing for any military action. First, the more hawkish elements in the Bush administration wanted to avoid the United Nations altogether. The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, however, urged President Bush to go the UN-route (The Economist, 2003). Of course, it cannot be known how much this contributed to the eventual decision to get a UN resolution on Iraq, but it was hardly irrelevant.

From the American point of view, the point about being able to use British overseas possessions as bases is no longer relevant. The United States has numerous military bases all over the world, and Britain has hardly any overseas possessions at all. Still, the special relationship is particularly relevant for the Americans, as well. The fact that they can count on British support in most cases means they are not seen as "going it alone" (The Economist, 2001). Surely American unilateralism would be even more fiercely criticised if it did not have at least one loyal ally.

4. Conclusion

The perspective I have adopted in this essay emphasises that at least from the British point of view, the essential reasons for the special relationship were not caused by the Cold War, but by the decline of Britain as a world power and the rise of the United States. To the United States, the ability to use British overseas possessions as bases in the containment of communism was important. The common cultural heritage shared by the countries was also an important element in the relationship.

The United States now perceives international terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and "rogue" or "failed" states as major threats to its security. Americans clearly thought of the attacks of September 11 as acts of war, and are therefore engaging in a "war on terror". Britain has strongly committed itself to this struggle on the side of the United States, which suggests that the special relationship is still helpful in explaining Anglo-American relations. The international situation has changed dramatically since the Cold War, but the need of both Britain and the United States for an especially close relationship has not.


Bell, Coral. "The 'Special Relationship'" in Leifer, Michael (ed.); 1972. Constraints and Adjustments in British Foreign Policy (George Allen & Unwin, London)

Lord Beloff. "The End of the British Empire and the Assumption of World-wide Commitments by the United States" in Louis, William Roger & Bull, Hedley (eds.); 1986. The "Special Relationship": Anglo-American Relations Since 1945 (Oxford University Press, Oxford)

Buller, Jim. "New Labour's Foreign and Defence Policy: External Support Structures and Domestic Politics" in Ludlam, Steve & Smith, Martin J. (eds.); 2001. New Labour in Government (Macmillan Press, London)

The Cabinet Office; 2002. The United Kingdom and the Campaign Against International Terrorism: Progress Report

"Who gains?" in the Economist, September 27th, 2001

"Bagehot: A bit of a stretch" in the Economist, March 7th, 2002

"Duct tape needed" in the Economist, March 20th, 2003

"The Shadow Men" in the Economist, April 24th, 2003

The Economist Global Agenda: "Best friends, still?" on, July 17th, 2003 (

Heater, Derek; 1976. Britain and the Outside World (Longman, London)

Hyland, William G.; 1999. Clinton's World: Remaking American Foreign Policy (Praeger Publishers, Westport, Connecticut, USA)

Kagan, Robert; 2003. Paradise and Power (Atlantic Books, London)

The National Security Council; 2002. The National Security Strategy of the United States of America

O'Hanlon, Michael E.; 2002. Defense Policy Choices for the Bush Administration (Brookings Institution Press, Washington, D.C., USA)

Reynolds, David; 1986. "A 'Special Relationship'? America, Britain and the International Order Since the Second World War" in International Affairs, Vol. 62, No.1 (Royal Institute of International Affairs, London)

Reynolds, David; 1989. "Rethinking Anglo-American Relations" in International Affairs, Vol. 65, No. 1. (Royal Institute of International Affairs, London)

Treverton, Gregory F.; 1990. "Britain's Role in the 1990s: An American View" in International Affairs, Vol. 66, No. 4. (Royal Institute of International Affairs, London)

Wallace, William; 1992. "British Foreign Policy After the Cold War" in International Affairs, Vol. 68, No. 3. (Royal Institute of International Affairs, London)