Dear Malcolm,

With Bush about to visit Britain, it is a good time to examine the so-called special relationship between the US and UK. I do not believe there is a special relationship. I think this is a fantasy that successive governments think makes them important players on the world stage. Tony Blair even seems to have convinced himself that the most important focus of UK foreign policy is to prevent the US acting unilaterally by ensuring that the UK gives unconditional support to any US policy!

I don’t believe either, that the UK should look only to act with the EU. I think we should use our influence in the international system to make the world more just and sustainable.

Dreams of a special relationship just muddle our view of our role in the world and make us a stooge of the US. In the case of Iraq, it led to us supporting the US in making a mistake which has made the world more dangerous for all concerned. A real friend would have helped the US avoid the neo-cons manipulating the trauma of September 11 to go to war in Iraq in a way that bitterly divided the world and led to chaos because of their incompetent failure to prepare for the aftermath.

Regards, Clare

Dear Clare,

It will surprise (and may worry) you that I agree with some of what you say. But first, is there, and has there been for many years, a special relationship? There is no serious doubt about that. Churchill and Roosevelt, Kennedy and Macmillan, Thatcher and Reagan, Bush and Blair say it all. No American president had a comparable relationship with De Gaulle, with Helmut Kohl, with Mitterrand or with Schröder.

In part it is shared history; in part a common language. But it is also because Britain is an Atlantic as well as a European nation. It is because Britain, like America but unlike continental Europe (except France), believes in strong armed forces and is prepared to use them. It is because Britain is closer to the US than the rest of Europe in its belief in low taxation and free enterprise.

Where I agree with you is that the Iraq war was unjustified and that Blair got it wrong. The proper role for a British prime minister is to be a candid friend of Washington not an uncritical admirer. Churchill clashed with Roosevelt over how to deal with Stalin. Wilson refused to send British troops to Vietnam. Thatcher handbagged Reagan over Grenada. Blair has a lot to learn.

Yours, Malcolm

Dear Malcolm,

I am not surprised that we agree about Iraq – I heard various interviews with you before the conflict. But you say there is a special relationship between the UK and the US. The question is what do we mean by this? We have strong links, which you could call a special relationship, with all the countries that were colonised by Britain – ties of history, language and continuing entanglement. If this is all the special relationship is, then we have the same relationship with Tanzania, Ireland and many others.

I would like to push you now to say whether the special relationship is any more than this. Tony Blair talks of the UK being a bridge between the US and Europe. Do you agree with this? John Kampfner (Blair’s Wars, Simon and Schuster, 2003) says that the Foreign Office had a panic when the US started to see Germany as a better route into the EU than the UK. You could argue that Blair humiliated Britain over Iraq in a desperate quest to re-establish this fantasy relationship that he saw as giving Britain an influential role on the world stage.

I don’t think Bush had a need for a special relationship with Britain. He just needed anyone he could find to go with him to Iraq. The US polling showed clearly that the American public – having been led to believe that September 11 was organised from Iraq – were willing to go to war with others, but not alone. It is notable that Bush talked endlessly of the coalition and even pressed poor countries like Rwanda and Eritrea into declaring support. In the case of Iraq, there was no special relationship if this implies that the UK had some special influence. The US did what it wanted and the UK went along with it.

I hope in your response you will tell me whether you think the special relationship is anything more than the bonds of history and language that we also share with others. If so, what? And does the US have a special relationship with the UK that is any different from the one it has with every other similar sized power?

Yours, Clare

Dear Clare,

Of course you are right that Britain has many continuing links with former colonies. The Commonwealth is a valuable forum for contact and cooperation. Who knows? Perhaps one day the US will be persuaded to join. They are certainly eligible. But most of the Third World countries of the Commonwealth are, rightly, preoccupied with their own economic development and with the regional problems of the parts of Africa, Asia or the Caribbean to which they belong.

The US, on the other hand, has global power. Britain has global influence and each sees many common problems which need to be dealt with. Nuclear proliferation, rogue states, weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism are some examples. Britain tends to be far closer to the US than are most other European countries in our assessment of what needs to be done on most of these issues. The US, for its part, values that support from a fellow member of the security council.

I do agree with Blair that Britain can be a bridge between America and Europe. There is a serious need for one. One reason why I was against the war in Iraq was that it did more damage to western unity than the Soviets ever managed in 50 years. Britain, by winning the support of Spain, Italy and the countries of eastern Europe, at least showed that it was not America versus Europe. Europe itself was divided.

You ask whether the US has a relationship with Britain which is any different to its relationship with other similar sized powers. The answer is undoubtedly yes. The US shares intelligence with Britain that it does not share with anyone else. It provided both the Polaris and Trident systems to sustain our nuclear deterrent. I remember, as defence secretary, negotiating the sale to Britain of cruise missiles which the Americans indicated they would not, at that time, sell to anyone else. The Special Relationship is special.

Regards, Malcolm

Dear Malcolm,

I was disappointed by your last email. You pick out nuclear proliferation, rogue states, weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism as common problems that Britain and the US see the need to deal with. You don’t pick out levels of poverty and inequality, failed states, displaced people or environmental degradation. You seem to be following the agenda of the current US administration, just like Blair.

I don’t believe you can deal with growing recruitment to al-Qaida without establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel, dismantling the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and halting the building of the Israeli wall which is confiscating more Palestinian territory. You can’t deal with WMD in the Middle East without supporting the call for all countries in the region, including Israel, to give up their WMD. To find solutions to these problems requires the UK to take a very different view from the US. So how does the special relationship work here?

Do you agree that levels of poverty, failed states, environmental degradation, conflicts within poor countries, large scale displacement of people and the spread of HIV/Aids, multi-drug resistant TB and drug resistant malaria are major threats to the future safety and stability of the world? Do you agree we need a stronger commitment to ending conflict, which requires a more effective UN – building competent modern states in poor countries – and a big international effort to harvest the world’s environmental resources sustainably? Do you agree that the US is very unsympathetic to this agenda? How can the special relationship help here?

Do you agree that we need to develop international law to deal with tyrants like Milosevic, Saddam Hussein and Mugabe and that that requires an ability to indict those who are guilty of crimes against humanity and to take all necessary steps to get them before the international court, including as a last resort, UN-authorised military action? Given the US opposition to the International Criminal Court, how does the special relationship work here?

And given the US opposition to Kyoto, the landmine treaty and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, how can we see the special relationship as a central part of our foreign policy?

I am not of course suggesting we cease to try to influence the US where we can. But my argument is that a focus on the special relationship prevents the UK making it our priority to take forward all these crucial issues. I think the UK should work for strong, multilateral, forward-looking agreements that make the world more just and sustainable and should build alliances to this end wherever it can. The obsession with the special relationship leads us instead to compromise continuously to stay close to the US.

By the way, the US shares intelligence with France and Germany among others and it isn’t clear to me how Polaris is making the world safer. Given the US willingness to contemplate the use of battlefield nuclear and perhaps biological weapons, and its plans to create a defence shield in space that could lead to a new arms race, don’t you agree that the UK should work with others to try to prevent a new arms race and be willing to consider giving up our weapons if this will help to get others to do the same?

Regards, Clare

Dear Clare,

You appear to have more in common with Tony Blair than you realise. Both of you seem to assume that the special relationship means that the British prime minister must always agree with the US president as, otherwise, the relationship is valueless.

Both of you are wrong. It so happens that on many issues of international affairs the British and American views are either the same or are very close. When we work together, much can be achieved. Blair, to his credit, used his relationship with Bush to get him to agree to the road map for the Israel/Palestine conflict.

My criticism of Blair is that he appears to be terrified that US-British relations will collapse if he criticises Bush on important issues where there is an honest difference of views. Margaret Thatcher slammed Reagan over the invasion of Grenada without damaging the friendship between the two. Douglas Hurd strongly opposed US policy on Bosnia, but that did not stop the Americans trying to persuade him to become secretary general of Nato.

You mention a number of challenges such as poverty, failed states and environmental degradation. These require a global response, and I hope Britain and the US work with the rest of the world to combat them. I doubt whether the special relationship is relevant to these issues, but nor does it do any harm.

Of course, the US tries to have good, close relations with France, Germany and others. That does not alter the fact that US and British ministers, their officials, the military and the intelligence agencies have an intimacy and a constant level of cooperation that does not exist between the Americans and any other country. For Britain to be so close to the world superpower gives us an influence that can be used to the good not only for Britain but for mankind as a whole.

Regards, Malcolm

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