Despite the number of MPs who were critical and despite public opinion no one actually expected that Britain would let down the United States over Syria. Since loss of Empire it has been the assumption of British politics that a world role can only be achieved through supporting as closely as possible the United States in international affairs.
Apart from fighting together against different manifestations of German militarism in two world wars, the key examples of the Special Relationship are the sharing of intelligence and the basing of nuclear missiles in this country. The importance of intelligence sharing and the trust between the two nations on intelligence should not be under-estimated. The agreement between John F. Kennedy and Harold Macmillan that Britain would have American Polaris missiles, which would be part of a multilateral deterrent albeit fitted with British warheads was a fundamental building block of the post-war relationship.
The so-called Nassau Agreement followed the nadir in the Anglo-American relationship - the Suez Crisis. Due to the United States undermining an Anglo-French and Israeli strike against Colonel Nasser’s Egyptian regime, Britain not only lost a Prime Minister, but was seen to have lost its ability to be a global player without the United States.
In the context of Suez or indeed Britain’s refusal to join America’s action in Vietnam, perhaps this recent refusal to back any U.S. air-strikes in Syria looks less serious. However, it could be indicative of a recent gradual change in Britain’s world role and its relationship with the United States.
First it must be accepted that the Special Relationship is important to Great Britain. Our reliability to the United States means we gain influence as the most trusted partner. While our interests are not identical they often coincide. We hold similar values of democracy, the rule of law and freedom. Both nations are on the whole a force for good in the world. Whereas France has defined its continuing global role in terms of independence from U.S. foreign policy, the United Kingdom has relied on closeness to the United States. To abandon such an approach would mean starting again from scratch.
The Special Relationship is special to both partners. The United States relies on British intelligence and vice versa. A common language, linked history (particularly the shared history of two world wars and the Cold War) and similar legal system all lead to a similar world-view. For many individual Americans there is a strong emotional affinity with the Old Country. The strong personal chemistry between our leaders: Churchill and Roosevelt, Kennedy and Macmillan, Mrs Thatcher and Reagan, Blair and Bush have also ensured a close alliance.
On the other hand, as demonstrated by the American approach to Suez, the cancellation of Skybolt and indeed the invasion of Grenada during the high-point of the Special Relationship when Reagan and Mrs Thatcher were out the helm, America will look after its own interests first. That should not surprise us. It is the duty of a state’s government to pursue the national interest. Likewise the British should always look first and foremost to their national interest.
The current strain in the Special Relationship goes back to when Blair stretched it to breaking point in his involvement in the Iraq War. Not only did Blair gamble on the future of our Armed Forces, by fighting a war on a peacetime budget (leading to the defeat in Basra), but he gambled on the future acceptance by the British public of the Special Relationship. Because Blair unquestioningly almost slavishly supported bad American policy, he actually undermined the future of close cooperation.
Now there is a most unpropitious situation. The Oval Office is occupied by a President with little interest in Europe – a man who sent back the bust of Sir Winston Churchill. Indeed it is sometimes doubtful Obama believes in America let alone its relationship with old allies. Meanwhile the British Government has drastically cut the nation’s military capacity, leading to concerns from the United States as to whether its closest ally would in future be able to support it.. Notwithstanding this, Great Britain, but for the Iraqi experience, would probably have supported the strike on Syria.
It would be fair to say Britain has sacrificed a lot for the Special Relationship. Would France have stood idly by if the sort of oppression carried out by Mugabe in Zimbabwe had taken place in one of its former colonies? Instead, when Mugabe was committing his worst abuses, Britain spent blood and treasure on the ill-fated Iraqi adventure.
Notwithstanding this, the Special Relationship has probably been better for both nations than worse. The Special Relationship saw off Nazism and Communism. Despite the current lack of confidence in the Anglo-Saxon economic model, the world is moving towards free markets. Anglo-Saxon values have defeated various manifestations of totalitarianism and have shown the core values that underpin our societies are robust.
Britain rightly can grumble about Suez, the delay of the U.S. entry into the world wars, the ambiguity of the U.S. response to the Falklands crisis and Grenada (who can imagine Blair having the strength of conviction to confront Reagan in the way Margaret Thatcher did?). This is outweighed though by the fact that thanks to American might, we are not dominated by a Socialist Russia or a Nazi Germany. Furthermore America may grumble about lack of support in Syria, but it should be thankful for unambiguous British support in the Cold War, our intelligence sharing and the dependability and expertise of our Armed Forces. The world as a whole can be thankful that apart from the aberration of the second Iraq War, the Special Relationship has been a force for good and a force for freedom and order in world affairs. It is important it survives.