Many UK leaders and commentators lay great emphasis on the “special relationship”. I agree with them that it is special in two respects.
The long joint history is the first tie. It started well with the plucky story of English settlers establishing the core of the eastern seaboard colonies that were to be the decisive influence on the emerging USA. These associations of kith, kin, and shared values do matter, despite the way these same “English virtues” had to be asserted in new language and with muskets by the settlers in the War of Independence. Both sides are largely at peace with their past. The US can be relaxed about the War of Independence because they won and went on to far greater things. The UK can be relaxed because many of us think the settlers were right to revolt against crass decisions by the British government of the day. We enjoy some reflected glory in what the US became.
The willingness to co-operate, take up arms and mutually support is also what most of these commentators and strategists believe. There is some truth in that. There is a high degree of co-operation between the intelligence and military forces of both countries. The UK has been most willing to assist the US in a wide range of military interventions worldwide in recent years. Whilst the US has been the dominant military partner, the presence of the UK with voice and supporting military capability has been helpful to the US in putting its case worldwide and showing it has friends and allies who share its outlook. NATO remains the bedrock of UK home defence against possible future serious threats, and the US commitment to the NATO guarantee is central to strategic thinking. I am all in favour of us working for a strong NATO and developing our joint working on intelligence and military matters wherever possible.
However, the world can change. The US and the UK in the end need to consider their own individual national interests. They are not always the same. The US undermined the UK at Suez. The UK stayed out of the Viet Nam war, which turned out to be a good call, without undermining the whole alliance. The US was not willing to back the UK against Argentina over the Falklands, trying to pose as a peace making friend of both countries when Argentina had violated international law and trodden on the UK’s interests and duties to the islanders. The USA did not enter the 2nd World War as a fighting ally of the UK until late 1941, and had been an even later entrant to the Great War of 1914-18. The UK needs to remember its history and make sure it has its own capability to defend our interests overseas and our own islands when need arises.
Sometimes people say all is well if the Prime Minister has a strong relationship with the President. Again history should lead to some shading of this view. Margaret Thatcher’s relationship with Mr Reagan was very good, but it did not produce US military or diplomatic support over the Falklands. Churchill’s relations with the White House were actively cultivated but it did not produce the early and strong military support he needed. Mr Cameron’s relationship with Mr Obama is as far as I know a good one, but this President has a different view of our shared history and a wish to reorient the US more towards the Pacific where the UK can offer less help.
All the time the US State department holds the view that the UK should get on with submitting itself to the EU to be of more help in the councils of Brussels to the US, the more the relationship will have its strains. The USA, proud of its own hard won independence, needs to grasp just how strongly many UK citizens oppose the idea of losing our independence to the EU.
Some pro EU people I n the UK make out the UK would need to become more dependent on the US if we left the EU. It appears that the choice is rather different to that. We either become more dependent on both the EU and USA, or we become more independent of both. From my reading of history and based on my instincts I think we need to be more independent of both, capable of defending ourselves if need arises.