As British Prime Minister David Cameron makes his first official visit to Washington, Britons are furiously debating Britain’s role in the world. It is an issue that has preoccupied the country’s elites since the British Empire irreversibly unraveled after the end of World War II. But the latest iteration of the debate is calling into question the very cornerstone of British foreign policy for more than 60 years, namely the Anglo-American “special relationship.”
The term “special relationship” was first coined by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during his “Iron Curtain speech” in March 1946. The term describes the unusually close political, military, diplomatic, cultural, and historical ties between the United States and Britain. Although both allies maintain close relationships with other countries, the level of bilateral cooperation in military operations planning, nuclear weapons technology, and intelligence gathering and sharing is unparalleled in modern history.
The United States and Britain have both benefited handsomely from the relationship. Throughout the Cold War and beyond, Britain has been an invaluable bridge between the United States and Europe, and Washington has long valued London’s role in mediating relations between the two continents. At the same time, Britain has secured not only military protection, but also the ability to exert an influence in international affairs far beyond its fading status as an imperial power.
But now a growing number of voices, primarily among the anti-American British left, are calling for Britain to reassess its close relationship with the United States. Many are still fuming over former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s support for the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Others are wondering what Britain is actually gaining from the relationship at a time when U.S. President Barack Obama is perceived to have already downgraded it to the level of a “special partnership.”
Many left-wingers want to carve out a new role for Britain as a post-modern pacifist “soft-power” great power. Former Labour Foreign Secretary David Miliband, for example, has tried to recast Britain as a “global thought leader.” Others say Britain should become a “global hub” in the fight against climate change. A British think tank recently sponsored a conference titled “Rethinking the UK’s International Ambitions and Choices.” The conference was tasked with “assessing the UK’s international priorities and the policy choices it faces in matching its ambitions, interests and resources, providing the context in which the UK government can make informed decisions about its international policies and resource investments.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague, in his first major speech since taking office in May, recently outlined his government’s long-term vision for Britain’s role in the world. He promised a sweeping overhaul of British foreign policy aimed at expanding the country’s “global reach and influence” to every inhabited continent.
Speaking at the Foreign Office in London, Hague said that if Britain wants to maintain its influence in a changing world, it will have to move beyond its special relationship with the United States and forge new strategic alliances around the globe.
In the speech, Hague said: “Our new government’s vision for foreign affairs is this: A distinctive British foreign policy that is active in Europe and across the world; that builds up British engagement in the parts of the globe where opportunities as well as threats increasingly lie; that is at ease within a networked world and harnesses the full potential of our cultural links, and that promotes our national interest while recognizing that this cannot be narrowly or selfishly defined.”