Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron (R) and US President Barack Obama (L) attend a press conference at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in central London on April 2016.
Andy Rain / Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to the United Kingdom last week took place just over 70 years after British Prime Minister Winston Churchill championed a “special relationship” between Washington and London. Churchill’s 1946 speech in Fulton, Missouri, called for a strategic and civilizational partnership against the “iron curtain” descending over Europe. Churchill’s faith in Anglo-American comity drew on his family heritage (he was the child of a transatlantic marriage) and the partnership he had forged with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in their struggle against fascism. Their bond came to symbolize a natural affinity between the United States and the United Kingdom, which intensified during the Reagan-Thatcher era and reached its apotheosis as President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair urged the case for war in Iraq.

Today, however, the relationship is showing signs of strain. Obama’s recent interview with The Atlantic highlighted a litany of complaints with the “distracted” government of British Prime Minister David Cameron. And indeed, the worldviews of the two men and the circumstances under which they came to office meant that a repeat of a Bush-Blair, Reagan-Thatcher, or FDR-Churchill partnership was never likely. In truth, though, the drift in U.S.-British relations is about far more than the policies or personalities of either leader. It is the result of a radically changed global context, beginning with the end of the Cold War and accelerating with the rise of Asia, which has reduced the relevance of the special relationship to both nations and pushed them to look for alternative partners.

AN AWKWARD PAIRING

The personalities and political priorities of Obama and Cameron suggested a downgrading of the special relationship. Early in his tenure, Obama referred to a “special partnership” rather than a “special relationship” with the United Kingdom. This was in marked contrast with George W. Bush’s rhetoric, and it prompted a widespread feeling in British political and media circles that the new administration was snubbing then Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Although the British media and Obama’s political opponents in the United States likely overinterpreted the removal of Churchill’s bust from the Oval Office or the impact of Obama’s family history (his father was tortured by the British in Kenya) on ties with the United Kingdom, his administration certainly gave the impression that it prioritized transatlantic relations less than its predecessors. Indeed, Obama promised from early in his first administration to be “America’s first Pacific president,” citing his birth in Hawaii and years in Indonesia as evidence of how “the Pacific rim has helped shape my view of the world.”

The 2003 invasion of Iraq was a moment of unusual intimacy in an increasingly cold marriage.

Cameron, too, entered office lacking the Atlantic zeal of his predecessor. Mindful of the politically toxic accusation that Blair had become Bush’s “poodle” in the lead up to Iraq, he was eager to put some distance between the United Kingdom and the United States. He and his foreign secretary, William Hague, promised a relationship with the United States that was “solid, not slavish.” The almost competitively lyrical hyperbole of previous eras—when Reagan dubbed Thatcher “the best man in England” or Thatcher called Reagan “the second most important man in my life”—seemed a thing of the past. In this new era, the special relationship would be based on more sober calculations of interest. And these, too, had begun to shift.

Many of each government’s policies have also pushed the two apart. The foreign policy performance of the Cameron government in particular has been a significant—and bipartisan—disappointment in Washington. “Britain has become—and is widely perceived to be—a less dependable and less capable ally,” the former George H.W. Bush administration official and head of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, recently opined. The heart of the frustration is a perception that the United Kingdom has failed to demonstrate leadership at a time of profound international challenges. Obama has complained of a “distracted” Cameron contributing to the West’s failures in Libya, of “the failure of Cameron to obtain the consent of his parliament” for intervention in Syria in 2013, and of the Cameron government’s initial reticence to contribute its “fair share” to NATO defense spending. These problems, combined with the United Kingdom’s diplomatic disengagement at the height of the Ukraine crisis, the threat to the country’s territorial integrity posed by Scottish independence, and the now pressing risk of Brexit, have left many in Washington with the impression that the United Kingdom is unable or unwilling to demonstrate international leadership. As Obama told The Atlantic, “Free riders aggravate me.” 

U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair enter the Rose Garden of the White House to speak to reporters in Washington May 2007.
U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair enter the Rose Garden of the White House to speak to reporters in Washington May 2007.
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

But passivity hasn’t been the only problem. Even at its most active, Cameron’s foreign policy has worked against the United Kingdom in Washington. His government’s decision to join China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank against the Obama administration’s wishes led to widespread frustration at what one administration official called the country’s “constant accommodation” of China. Cameron’s repeated promises to act as China’s “strongest advocate in the west” suggested to many that it could no longer be counted on to uphold the liberal international order.

From London’s vantage point, meanwhile, Washington has become a less inspiring act to follow. The Obama administration’s doctrine of calculated retrenchmentavoiding “stupid shit”—may be prudent, but it is also uninspiring. And for a country such as the United Kingdom, which is accustomed to following the United States’ lead, the lack of a compelling vision around which the West can rally has made it difficult to set a direction. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the historic high points of the special relationship have centered on shared struggles against major common enemies: Nazi Germany under Roosevelt and Churchill, the Soviet Union under Reagan and Thatcher, and international terrorism under Bush and Blair. Today’s challenges, in contrast, are more complex and amorphous; and, increasingly, they center on the other side of the world. It is these shifts, more than the personalities or policies of Obama and Cameron, that are the real drivers of the special relationship’s waning importance.

SEEING OTHER PEOPLE

When historians look back at the Bush-Blair era, they will likely view the 2003 invasion of Iraq as a moment of unusual intimacy in an increasingly cold marriage. The end of the Cold War, the rise of Asia, and the shift to global multipolarity have forced both the United States and the United Kingdom to reassess their global roles and diversify their diplomatic partnerships.

The United States is reorienting its strategic center of gravity from Europe and the Middle East toward Asia. The shift, in large part a response to the rise of China, began in earnest in the latter years of the George W. Bush administration and became a central feature of U.S. grand strategy under Obama as the “pivot" to Asia, later rebranded the "rebalance." The strategy, which involves the intensification of the United States’ military, political, and economic engagement in Asia, is likely to be permanent and is already significantly increasing the importance of U.S. regional allies such as Australia,Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea.

China's President Xi Jinping and Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron shake hands at the end of a joint press conference in 10 Downing Street, in central London, October 2015.
China's President Xi Jinping and Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron shake hands at the end of a joint press conference in 10 Downing Street, in central London, October 2015.
Suzanne Plunkett / Reuters

The shift to Asia, combined with the rise of other significant global players such as Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, and Turkey, has brought the relevance of the United States’ old alliances, including that with the United Kingdom, into question. “In an increasingly ‘G-20 world,’” explained a report from the Congressional Research Service last year, “the UK may not be viewed as centrally relevant to the United States in all of the issues and relations considered a priority on the U.S. agenda.”

Even within Europe, the centrality of the United Kingdom to U.S. interests is less evident than before. Germany’s newfound international confidence, combined with its central importance to the West’s confrontation with Russia and to the financial stability of the eurozone, has weakened the historic British claim to act as a bridge between the United States and Europe. U.S. relations with France have also been revitalized after the “freedom fries” nadir of the Bush administration, with both Obama and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry referring to France as the United States’ “oldest ally”—to the consternation of many in the United Kingdom. “Britain . . . ,” summarizes the former Clinton administration official and Foreign Policy editor David Rothkopf, “now falls third . . . behind Germany (more important) and France (more supportive of the United States in recent years).” It is difficult to argue, given this changed constellation of U.S. friends and alliances, that much remains special about the United Kingdom.

The special relationship was never quite as special as its most passionate exponents liked to maintain.

Although the United States remains the United Kingdom’s closest international partner, London has begun to question its geopolitical monogamy. Sensing economic opportunity, and less politically wary than the United States, the Cameron government has energetically courted China. It has sought to develop what Cameron called a new “special relationship" with India and to strengthen the country’s ties with the other BRICS countries and the Middle East. London’s theatrical mayor, Boris Johnson, even dubbed his country the “eighth emirate of the world” in his scramble to attract foreign investment. At the same time it has ramped up its economic diplomacy, however, it has undergone a major retrenchment of its strategic and global political ambitions, making it less sensitive to the United States’ concerns about the political implications of Asia’s rise and reducing its willingness to engage in overseas military interventions. These divergent responses to long-term global shifts make it more difficult to repurpose the U.S.-British relationship for a post-transatlantic world.

NOT SO SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP

To be sure, the special relationship was never quite as special as its most passionate exponents liked to maintain. Even at its high points, the line between myth and reality was thin. The United Kingdom always took the partnership more seriously than the United States, valuing it not just for the country’s national security but also as a psychological cushion for the country’s precipitous postwar decline. In 1943, future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan fantasized about the United Kingdom as a great power emeritus, tutoring the new Rome as the “Greeks in this American Empire.” Individual president–prime minister relationships, including Dwight Eisenhower and Anthony Eden, Richard Nixon and Edward Heath, have been strained and, as the historian Lawrence Freedman argues, military cooperation—from Suez to Vietnam, the Falklands, and even Iraq—was never as automatic as many assumed. But there was a degree of closeness, of almost automatic trust, replicated in few other bilateral relationships. Indeed, in White House Years, former National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger described “a pattern of consultation so matter-of-factly intimate that it became psychologically impossible to ignore British views.”

Something of this relationship survives today. The U.S.-British bilateral investment relationship is the largest in the world, with U.S. corporate assets in the United Kingdom representing more than a fifth of all such assets abroad. The countries cooperate widely on defense, including extensive liaison, training, and personnel exchanges, on more than 20 joint equipment programs, and, of course, on nuclear technology. And there is an extraordinary and often controversial degree of cooperation between the countries’ intelligence agencies, as demonstrated in the Falklands and Iraq wars, in ongoing counterterrorism operations, and most recently in the PRISM eavesdropping program leaked by Edward Snowden. Both countries share a commitment to a similar brand of lightly regulated capitalist democracy and view each other as forces for good in the world. At a popular level, from the ubiquity of Hollywood movies in the United Kingdom to the cultural cache of the royal family, Harry Potter, Adele, and the English Premier League in the United States, the Anglo-American connection remains strong.  

So despite his now well-documented frustrations with the Cameron government, when Obama made the case against Brexit in London last week, he addressed a nation with strong cultural, ideological, economic, and strategic links to the United States. The United Kingdom will remain an important U.S. ally going forward and in some discrete areas—especially defense and intelligence—the partnership will continue to be unusually close. Under new leadership in the White House and in Downing Street, it may even enjoy a short revival. But the factors driving the reduction in the special relationship’s importance are beyond the control of any individual president or prime minister. At root, the historical context that made the relationship special is rapidly disappearing and may never return. Unless the United States and the United Kingdom can find a new rationale for the special relationship in this changed context, they will likely continue to drift apart. In this new multipolar reality, both countries will be forced to cultivate a greater number of close partnerships, but perhaps fewer of them will be truly special.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now