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Azeem Ibrahim Headshot

Another Nail in the Coffin of the Special Relationship

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"This is not a battle between the United States of America and terrorism, but between the free and democratic world and terrorism. We therefore here in Britain stand shoulder to shoulder with our American friends in this hour of tragedy, and we, like them, will not rest until this evil is driven from our world."

So said Tony Blair after the attacks on September 11th to affirm Britain's solidarity with the US. Nine days later, in a speech to the US Congress, President Bush further declared "America has no truer friend than the United Kingdom." The 'Special Relationship' a term coined first by Churchill in 1946 to demonstrate the exceptionally close military, diplomatic, cultural and historical relationship between the US and UK, it seemed, was at it's zenith.

The relationship was tested to the extreme a few years later with Tony Blair's unequivocal support for the US-led invasion of Iraq, widely regarded now as one of the worst foreign policy decisions of this generation.

So when Hillary Clinton offers to arbitrate between the UK and Argentina over the sovereignty of the UK's Falkland Islands, many are surprised by the lack of support from such a staunch ally. After all, the matter had been clearly 'resolved' in 1982 at the cost of 255 British lives. Was Secretary Clinton not versed in the annals of the 'Special Relationship?

The Special Relationship is in fact a one directional affair. The US simply does not have the affection for the British that many of our politicians would like to believe. We do have a close relationship, particularly when it comes to military and security matters, but to say there is anything special out with mutual interests is a mistake.

Let us not forget the times when we needed US assistance and it was not forthcoming. Take the Americans' reluctance to impede IRA fundraising efforts in the US. A reluctance for thirty years, a period which saw the deaths of over eighteen hundred people, including 1100 members of the British Security Forces and 630 civilians'. That is above and beyond the billions of pounds of damage their bombs did to UK mainland cities. Or the US invasion of Grenada, a former British colony and member of the Commonwealth after Reagan had assured Thatcher that no such incursion was planned. Or the US siding with Mexico, Peru and Brazil in trying to force the UK to the negotiating table when the Falkland Islands - sovereign British territory - had been invaded by Argentina. Or the subsequent refusal of US Secretary of State Alexander Haig to allow the UK to use an airfield on Ascension Island (UK territory) to refuel Vulcan bombers to bomb Argentinean runways in Port Stanley (UK territory). As Sir John Nott, UK Defence Secretary at the time said, "the Americans never really supported us."

Or more recently during the buildup to the invasion of Iraq when, according to former British Ambassador to the US, Sir Christopher Meyer, Blair was 'very much the junior and perhaps dispensable partner' which resulted in Britain never making her influence felt in Washington.

So why this constant, sometimes embarrassing, fawning Special Relationship? A term which seems alien to the ears of our friends across the pond?

The reality is that the UK has never really recovered from the loss of its Empire and still suffers from 'Top Table Syndrome'. It cannot imagine a world where it does not retain global reach and influence. In fact, the cornerstone of UK security policy is to be closely connected to and supporting of the policies pursued by our American cousins. This has resulted in an enthusiasm to get deeply involved in global conflicts without thinking too hard about how much it might cost, and whether it is a price we really want to pay. And the lack of preparation to meet those costs has resulted in the under-resourcing we have seen over the past few years, which has resulted in the scandalous shortages of tanks, helicopters, night goggles and rifles when our Forces needed them most.

The US on the other hand, as the world's last remaining superpower, will naturally have a number of distinctive bilateral relations. Such as with China - the largest holder of US debt; or Saudi Arabia - world's largest energy provider; or Mexico - the biggest source of cheap labor to the US. It was therefore little surprise that the first foreign trip for US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was not the traditional Europe - but Asia.

In the long term, the UK needs to have an independent foreign policy which is calculated based directly on the national strategic interest without being subservient to the US (or Europe, as many advocate). The Bush/Blair expedition in Iraq and Afghanistan is imbedded in the national psyche and we continue to suffer financially, morally and physically due to the UK's inability to recognize this phantom special relation.

Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Fellow at the International Security Program at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a Fellow at the Institute of Social Policy Understanding.

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