US-UK Special Relationship

David Dunn, Edward Avenell

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


Relations between the United Kingdom and the United States, special or otherwise, have been of perennial interest across the Atlantic since before American independence in 1776. The extensive contemporary academic literature on this topic reflects the political and popular appetite to test the temperature of the central relationship at the heart of British foreign and security policy. Rather like the queen in “Snow White” a nagging desire exists to know whether the United Kingdom is still the “fairest one of all,” or at least the most “special” in the eyes of Washington. It is a tendency that accompanies every summit meeting, bilateral or institutional, and every international crisis during which a policy statement is expected from president and prime minister. For these reasons alone then it is a topic that generates academic debate and discourse aplenty. The profusion of literature on the topic is also facilitated by the ease of access to material. British scholars have easy access to press reports and the policy communities on either side of the Atlantic. The periodic release of archives and memoirs also provides additional opportunities to pick over relations and reevaluate the received opinion of previous debates. The centrality of the United States to world politics means that there are alwaysnew policy dilemmas to deliberate on. And further relations with Washington also play a countervailing role in that other great British obsession, relations with Europe. Relations between London and Washington are more important, however, than merely the latest beauty contest among world leaders. For the United Kingdom something more fundamental is involved in both guiding and accompanying the United States on its global leadership mission. That is the sense in which the United States has adopted the civilizing mission that Britons believed themselves to be following in their pursuit of empire. In Kipling’s politically incorrect invocation, the United States has taken up “the white man’s burden . . . to veil the threat of terror, and check the show of pride” and has undertaken to “fight the savage wars of peace,” and, for its part, the United Kingdom has pledged to support it in that mission both morally and materially. In this way the United States is seen as special to the United Kingdom in that it provides the means of continuing the spread of Britain’s version of modernity. By staying close, Britain believes that it has managed to harness American power to what has become a common vision of a more benign future shaped by common values. By allowing the United Kingdom a supporting part in its hegemony the United States preserves and enhances Britain’s world role beyond that which it is materially capable of carrying out alone in return for the support of a close and still capable ally. In this way by treating the relationship as special, the United States preserves the United Kingdom’s elevated role on the world stage and, in return, is supported and legitimized in its own role as part of that grand bargain. The foundations of the relationship have been exhaustively analyzed, from common historical, cultural, and linguistic ties to common legal structures and religion to the intertwined intelligence, military, and nuclear communities to the mutual admiration for strong leadership characters. Works have plotted the upturns and downturns in the relationship and the differences between access to Washington and influence over it. Over time the name of the relationship has itself also changed. Until the 1990s, both governments referred to the “Anglo-American special relationship.” Since then, at the insistence of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the more technically and politically correct usage has been “UK-US special relationship” (or US-UK). Some scholars, however, stick to “Anglo American” to stress the dominance of England or Englishness in this relationship or perhaps simply to avoid the less felicitous term. Certainly the term special relationship has varied in its popularity and its uses over time and, however cringe worthy to many a politician or diplomat, it remains sufficiently popular in journalism circles to ensure its future longevity. This article cites academic work that examines the history, nature, health, and future of this relationship. For ease of access the works are split into several themed sections. By their nature some pieces could have appeared under several headings.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationOxford Bibliographies
Subtitle of host publicationOxford Bibliographies in International Relations
PublisherOxford University Press
Publication statusPublished - 28 Sept 2016


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