By Dr. Ian Ralby
Two hundred years ago this week, two copies of the Treaty of Ghent -- the seeds that would eventually blossom into the Anglo-American Special Relationship -- were heading west across the Atlantic. The situation on either end of that journey, however, could not have been more different.
On January 5, 1815, the people of Ghent -- a beautiful and historic town in what is today the Flemish region of Belgium -- threw a banquet to celebrate the peace treaty between Britain and the United States that had been signed there, less than two weeks prior, on Christmas Eve. At that same time, however, the Battle of New Orleans raged in Louisiana, only drawing to a close on January 8. News of the Treaty had not yet made its way across the ocean.
I remember learning three things about the War of 1812 at school: 1) Francis Scott Key wrote the National Anthem during a battle at Ft. McHenry -- near to where I grew up, 2) Dolly Madison saved Washington's portrait as the White House burned, and 3) Andrew Jackson heroically defeated superior British forces.
Outside school, however, I also learned that the war ended with the Treaty of Ghent. This was an important piece of history in my family, because my 5xGreat Grandfather, Henry Clay, was one of the negotiators and signers of the Treaty. I have always been proud of that heritage, but until recently, I did not really appreciate the significance of the peace he helped establish.
Last month, Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate in Lexington, KY, graciously provided for me to travel to Ghent to retrace my ancestor's footsteps. While the trip had tremendous personal appeal, my most interesting discovery was that the people of Ghent maintain a collective memory of when the British and American delegations were in town. In fact, their image of the two nations remains colored to some degree by how the two delegations behaved during that period in 1814. I constantly smiled as I heard from cab drivers, chocolatiers and historians alike how affable and friendly the Americans were and how much they became part of society there.
Henry Clay, the social leader of the delegation, was often at odds with the more puritanical John Quincy Adams. The future President was frequently annoyed that his future Secretary of State was getting home from a night of drinking and playing cards at the same time he was getting up to begin his work. Even Adams, however, came to appreciate how much that socializing helped forge a connection with the locals and instill in them a positive image of the United States. The comments of the people of Ghent in 2014 made me realize how important that period in 1814 really was for building relationships.
The United States was a fledgling experiment in democracy -- a new state with few friends. While the Kingdom of Morocco had been the first to recognize and establish bilateral relations with the U.S., many other states remained uncertain as to America's viability. The delegates in Ghent, however, helped secure America's credibility, pave its future, and build a relationship with what has become its most important ally -- the very country with which it was at war.
Shortly after arriving in England in 2007 to study international relations at the University of Cambridge, I heard the term "Special Relationship" the first time. Over time, I came to realize that this expression meant not only that our countries were closest cousins and best of friends, but also that, from a military and intelligence perspective, we work together in a more integrated fashion than any other two countries on earth. The Treaty of Ghent did not result directly in the Special Relationship, but were it not for the mutual respect and collegiality begun in Flanders 200 years ago, the Anglo-American dynamics of this most recent century would not have been possible.
For seven years, I lived, studied and worked in Britain. In fact, I even worked as an advisor to the British Government, at the heart of the Special Relationship. Over the last few years, however, I have watched the nature of that relationship begin to change. At the same time that we are commemorating a century since the beginning of World War I and seventy years since the end of World War II, political rhetoric and shifts in policy indicate decreasing regard for the Special Relationship.
Politically, the U.S. government has seemed somewhat less interested in the Special Relationship recently. In addition to several actions that were perceived as slights by many in Britain -- including removing the bust of Churchill from the Oval Office -- the most striking indication of a change in U.S. position came when a senior State Department official famously remarked: "There's nothing special about Britain. You're just the same as the other 190 countries in the world. You shouldn't expect special treatment." At the same time, defense cuts in the UK mean that British military and intelligence capabilities are declining, raising concerns as to whether Britain is actually able to be America's closest and greatest ally.
The world's temperature is rising as conflict heats up in traditional problem spots and new ones alike. It certainly seems a strange time to start alienating friends and family. Even if British capability is on the decline and U.S. interests are diverging from those of the UK, there is tremendous value in building on two centuries of peace and adapting the Special Relationship to fit new circumstances and meet new challenges. The world is desperate for true statesmen with the genius to produce transformative compromise, and all British and American leaders should consider the wisdom shown by our forebears
Dr. Ian Ralby is a leading expert on security issues and works as an advisor to governments and organizations on matters of international law and policy. He received his JD from William & Mary Law School in Virginia and his PhD from the University of Cambridge in England. He is a direct descendant of Henry Clay and remains connected to Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate in Lexington, Kentucky.