Home inSight The Not-So-Special Relationship

The Not-So-Special Relationship

Seventy years ago, D-Day marked the pinnacle of the U.S.-UK "special relationship." Today British military power is a shell of its former self.

Seventy years after Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy, D-Day remains etched in American minds. Even as the “Greatest Generation” passes away, the iconic images of Allied forces landing on the beaches to free Europe from the clutches of Nazi Germany live on in movies, history, and even politics. Only in 2006 did the British finish repaying Lend-Lease, the crucial American military aid that ensured Britain’s survival during the war. The invasion of France and the subsequent liberation of Europe defined the Anglo-American bond—the Old and New Worlds uniting to defeat tyranny. Since then, however, a lot has changed, and the “special relationship” has lost some of its luster.

Superficially, at least, the state of the “special relationship” is strong. At the United Nations, only a handful of countries, like Canada and the Marshall Islands, vote more frequently with the United States than the United Kingdom. With trade topping $100 billion in 2013, the State Department considers the United Kingdom as “one of the largest markets for U.S. goods exports [sic] and one of the largest suppliers of U.S. imports.” Culturally, outside of America’s immediate neighbors, the United Kingdom ranks as the top destination for Americans travelling overseas and for American students studying abroad. The British Rhodes and Marshall fellowships still remain among the most coveted of their kind. British icons, from the Beatles to James Bond to Harry Potter, loom large in American pop culture.

Most importantly, Britain remains a key military ally. The United Kingdom was at the forefront of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, as well as more recent ventures like the war in Libya. As a member of the elite “Five Eyes” club, the United Kingdom remains at the heart of the intelligence gathering and sharing effort. The British rank among the key partners for a series of big-ticket American weapons programs, from the development of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to the Trident nuclear missiles to the sensitive RC-135 Rivet Joint intelligence planes. And just last year, the entire British defense staff visited Washington for the first meeting of the Combined Joint Chiefs of Staff since World War II. American and British military routinely exchange officers to serve each other’s units and participate in joint training.

Nevertheless today the “special relationship” is in trouble. As Winston Churchill remarked in his 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech, “Fraternal association requires not only the growing friendship and mutual understanding between our two vast but kindred systems of society, but the continuance of the intimate relationship” between the two militaries. When Churchill made those remarks, this foundation was present. After all, during World War II the Anglo-American alliance was still a relationship of near equals, though the United States was increasingly the dominant partner. On D-Day itself, for example, 73,000 American and 61,715 British troops stormed Normandy’s beaches. And the War’s heroes often came in pairs: Roosevelt and Churchill, Patton and Montgomery.

Today, British military power is a shell of its former self and only dwindling. The British Army is set toshrink to only 82,000 soldiers by 2020, less than half the size of the United States Marine Corps and the smallest it has been since the early 19th century. The cuts also left the British Army with twice as many horses as tanks, a mere 227. The Royal Navy now has only 19 frigates and destroyers, leaving it with two admirals and thirteen captains for every ship, as one Tory Member of Parliament quipped. The Royal Air Force, which suffered comparatively less, is smaller now than at any point since World War I, and the British government even outsourced its helicopter search and rescue operations from the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy to a private American company. For the first time in more than seventy years, the Britain will no longer have a permanent presence in Germany by 2016.

These cuts not only constitute, as one British general officer described, “one hell of a risk”; they threaten the viability of the “special relationship.” As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates remarked, “With the fairly substantial reductions in defense spending in Great Britain, what we’re finding is that it won’t have full spectrum capabilities and the ability to be a full partner as they have been in the past.” The argument that the cuts aim to create a smaller but more agile force only goes so far. The truth is that size matters: the oceans, after all, are not any smaller; troops still need time to train and rest in between deployments; equipment still requires maintenance. As British military capacity shrinks, so too does the “special relationship.”

Should Scotland vote to become an independent state in September 2014, warned former British Defense Minister and NATO Secretary General Lord George Robertson, “the United States’ oldest and closest ally will be on the road to disintegration.” More immediately, Scotland’s Rosyth dockyard assembles the Royal Navy’s two carriers, and its Faslane naval base is home to the Royal Navy’s nuclear powered submarine fleet, which will likely need to be relocated. Add to this the debate over what happens to the Scottish regiments and Scottish servicemen in British army units, and the prospects for a British contribution to any American military effort remain even bleaker.

The longer term picture is equally troubling. Even before the much ballyhooed “pivot to Asia,” American interests were shifting and so too were American alliances. As a result, even the term “special relationship” is no longer exclusive. Secretary of State John Kerry has called for a “special relationship” with China, while Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has already characterized it as such. Others have used the term to refer to American relationships ranging from France, Israel, and Japan. Recently, Vice President Joe Biden even called for a “genuine strategic partnership” with Cyprus. Even Winston Churchill acknowledged, “There are already the special United States relations with Canada which I have just mentioned, and there are the special relations between the United States and the South American Republics.”

Moreover, the demographics of both America and Britain are changing. In the United States, the once dominant White Anglo-Saxon Protestant population is dwindling, both as a share of the population and in political prominence, while other groups, such as Hispanics, are on the rise. British demographics, too, are changing, with an influx of immigrants from the Sub-Continent and Eastern Europe, and it has had a more difficult time than the United States assimilating these immigrant communities. Could these demographic shifts eventually transform American and British interests and, with them, their choice of allies? It is certainly possible.

There is already some evidence of this shift. During the debate over a possible Syria military intervention in 2013, a BBC poll found that Britons strongly disapproved of participating in a possible American-led military action. More troublingly, 67 percent of Britons also believed that “the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and the US was not relevant in the modern age.” This comes on the heels of previous polls that also indicated the waning importance of the “special relationship,” and a report by Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee cautioned that overusing the phrase can both “devalue its meaning” and “raise unrealistic expectations about the benefits the relationship can deliver to the U.K.”

The American foreign policy elite is also reevaluating the value of “special relationship.” When a Pew Research Poll asked Council of Foreign Relations members in 2013 which countries in the future will be “more important as America’s allies and partners,” the United Kingdom failed to make the top ten (India ranked first); it came in 11th, tied with Indonesia. The same poll also found that the United Kingdom ranked third as a country that will be “less important as America’s ally and partner,” right behind the European Union and France. For his part, President Barack Obama, who made waves early in his presidency by claiming that the United States does not have “a stronger friend and a stronger ally” than France, predicted that the “relationship between India and the United States will be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.”

Americans and Brits will likely never wake up one day to find that the “special relationship” (to the extent it existed) has suddenly collapsed, but like the British Empire, it may drift slowly into the sunset. For all the importance placed on the Anglo-American alliance, the partnership has grown increasingly out of balance. If present trends continue, the United Kingdom’s ability to act as the United States’ primary military partner will vanish. Even as we honor the shared sacrifices of D-Day and the Transatlantic bond it forged, the “special relationship,” like the Lend-Lease and the photos of the Normandy landing, risks fading into the history books.