Winston Churchill called the alliance between the United States and Great Britain a “special relationship.” In his 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Mo., he said that the peace of the postwar world would depend on “the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples…a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States.” The empire is gone, and the commonwealth is a shadow. But American and British leaders since Churchill have (mostly) embraced his vision.
Have they still in the Obama years? In 2009 Britain released from jail the Libyan intelligence officer responsible for the 1988 bombing of PanAm Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The United States was not pleased. The next year Secretary of State Hillary Clinton endorsed Argentine calls for negotiations over the Falkland Islands, which Britain had gone to war in 1982 to defend. Britain was not pleased. Besides policy disagreements there have been small symbolic gaffes. When Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited Washington in 2009 President Obama gave him a box of DVDs of American movies—“a gift,” the Daily Mail complained, “about as exciting as a pair of socks.”
But the special relationship—which is actually 50 years older than Winston Churchill’s Fulton speech—has lasted, despite occasional differences, because the two countries share common interests and roots. The relationship coalesced at the very end of the 19th century—a bad one for Anglo-American relations, beginning with the War of 1812. At mid-century, the United States was worrying about British designs on the Republic of Texas and the Hawaiian Islands. The Civil War twice came close to becoming a war with Britain: in 1861, when the Union Navy plucked two Confederate diplomats of a British mail ship (they were released after Britain protested); and again in 1863, when a British shipyard built two ironclad rams for the Confederate Navy (the British government bought the ships after the Union protested).
Yet another squall with Britain blew up over a South American boundary dispute. Venezuela and British Guiana had been quarreling over their common border for decades. In February 1895 the United States intervened when Congress passed a resolution calling on Venezuela and Britain to submit to arbitration. This seemingly evenhanded gesture was in fact partisan: Venezuela, the weaker country, wanted arbitration, while Britain refused even to consider giving up what it believed was its territory. Economics impelled the United States to take a stand. British miners were extracting gold that had been discovered in the disputed territory; Americans wanted a piece of the action. Britain claimed to control the mouth of the Orinoco River—the commercial pathway to Venezuela’s interior. Could Americans use the path if Britain guarded the entry?
Some Americans worried about the balance of power. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge warned that if Britain were left in possession of the Orinoco, the Caribbean would become a “British lake.” (Britain already had a slew of Caribbean colonies, from British Honduras to Barbados, while the United States as yet owned nothing south of Key West.) Lodge’s mentor Henry Adams—son, grandson and great-grandson of men who had all been feisty ambassadors to Britain— favored geopolitics with a dash of Anglophobia: “It is time,” he declared, “that the political existence of England should cease in North America.” (Adams might be hazy about his continents but not his prejudices.)
But the main feeling motivating Americans in 1895 was a consciousness of their newfound power and prospects. The United States had expanded to the Pacific and filled in its western frontier; now it wanted new worlds to stretch out in. Richard Olney, who became Grover Cleveland’s secretary of state in June, would express the national mood of self-assertion in a brash metaphor: “This country was once the pioneer and is now the millionaire.”
On July 20 Olney sent a message to Britain’s Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury. Olney looked back to the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 in which the United States had declared the Western Hemisphere of limits to new European conquests. Although Britain was now not literally invading Venezuela, its bullying attitude put the smaller country under “duress.” Therefore its actions were “injurious to the interests of the people of the United States.” Olney coupled his reasoning with a boast: “Today the United States is practically sovereign on this continent”—that geographical confusion, again—“its infinite resources combined with its isolated position render it master of the situation.”
Lord Salisbury answered with debater’s points and sarcasm: The 72-year-old Monroe Doctrine did not apply “to the state of things in which we live at the present day.” How would the United States like it if Mexico tried to reclaim the Southwest, and some third country demanded arbitration?
President Cleveland himself replied on December 17, in a message drafted by Olney. The Monroe Doctrine, he said, could “not become obsolete while our Republic endures.” Therefore the United States would “resist by every means in its power, as a willful aggression upon its rights and interests,” any British land-grab. Britain and Venezuela should submit to arbitration. And Cleveland was bold enough to push negotiations to the brink: “In making these recommendations I… keenly realize all the consequences that may follow.”
Britain backed off—because of a threat in another quarter of the globe. On January 2, 1896, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany telegraphed Paul Kruger, president of the Transvaal Free State, an independent Afrikaner republic in what is now South Africa, congratulating him on repelling an attack from Britain’s Cape Colony. (British politicians in the Cape wanted to annex the Transvaal and its gold fields— greater than Venezuela’s.) Although London disowned the attackers, the Kaiser’s meddling raised a storm in Britain that blew Venezuela, Olney and Cleveland of the front pages.
But the Kaiser’s telegram was more than a temporary distraction. Germany, no less than the United States, was a rising power—and one that was much closer to Britain. In order “to respond to the German challenge,” writes historian John Lukacs, the British realized they “had to secure the friendship of the United States, at almost any price.”
To settle the Venezuelan border dispute, in November 1896 Britain and the United States agreed to an arbitration tribunal consisting of two Americans, two Britons and one Russian. (No Venezuelans were included.) Two years later, when the United States went to war with Spain over Cuban independence—its bid to make the Caribbean an American lake—Britain sided with its former rival.
Realpolitik was not the only engine of Anglo-American rapprochement. American heiresses who married into cash-strapped British aristocratic families gave more than their fortunes—Jennie Jerome, the Brooklyn born daughter of a stockbroker, was the mother of Winston Churchill. Mass immigration into the United States made old-stock Americans think more fondly of their roots. If the two English speaking countries did not vex each other with quarrels, why not cooperate?
The new special relationship would undergird three world wars (I, II and Cold) and survive insults a lot worse than giving Gordon Brown a box of DVDs: In 1956 President Dwight Eisenhower rudely stopped an Anglo-French attempt to recover the Suez Canal from Egyptian nationalists.
Close as kin, Britain and the United States repeatedly drop their mutual grievances to support each other against more egregious wrongs committed by common enemies. Even powerful countries need reliable friends. When the Islamic State overran northwestern Iraq in the summer of 2014, Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron co-authored an op-ed in the Times of London asserting their determination to “foster… stability around the world.” When ISIS beheaded David Haines, a British prisoner, the White House announced, “The United States stands shoulder to shoulder tonight with our close friend and ally in grief and resolve.” The special relationship should last for decades yet.