The UK-US ‘Special Relationship’: Is This the End?

The US Department of State’s website says “the United States has no closer partner than the United Kingdom”. This view has been shared in most British political circles for many years now. 

The US President and the UK Prime Minister have always been thought to have a special relationship on the world stage (think Thatcher and Reagan or Blair and Bush), however, recent events in Afghanistan have exposed this could not be further from the truth for Boris Johnson and Joe Biden.

Even before such events, there was a lot riding on the relationship with little to support its success. Since the UK’s departure from the EU, the Conservative government has clearly been angling for a close trading arrangement with the US. This had been going fairly well with President Trump, as he and Boris were natural bedfellows, from the polarising culture-war rhetoric down to the rather unorthodox styles of presentation. Most importantly they shared a view of Britain’s place in the world – firmly better off alone, outside the EU.

Unfortunately for Johnson, Biden definitely does not share this view, and generally goes in for a more sensible-facing style of politics. It was far from a good starting position, but this so-called ‘special relationship’ between the US and the UK has endured for so many years one would hope it could endure this. Then came Afghanistan.

Ultimately, Biden’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan was not one the UK supported, yet our government held absolutely no sway over the course of events. This may have been a foreign policy Blair and Bush entered into as partners together, but it is concluding on very unequal terms. As a senior Conservative commented to the Financial Times following one of Biden’s speeches, this was a case of “not America first, but America alone.”

UK politicians clearly do recognise this is a fracturing relationship, and they are playing their part in the division too. It was striking when the House of Commons met to discuss the events how much criticism Biden received, particularly from the Conservative benches who hardly ever criticised previous president Trump, often due to desires for a trade deal. Gone is that hesitation and unquestioning public-facing trust in the US President’s actions.

This could be viewed in isolation as just one issue, but added to all that has come before, I think it is clear the ‘special relationship’ is no longer all it’s cracked up to be. A cabinet minister anonymously told The Times, “we are not Washington’s most important ally”, and with our global significance fading following Brexit, why should we be? Theresa May’s questioning of “Global Britain” in Parliament hits the nail on the head – we may want to be a global power through the US, but the US should logically want to focus on those nations which already hold power. The rift in our relationship is clear, and it will take monumental changes to rebuild.

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Matthew Stothard

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September 2021
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