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The Special Relationship: The Reality behind the Myth

The Prime Minister has just returned from his first meeting with President George W. Bush at Camp David and proclaimed “I am an Atlanticist”.

The special relationship on the international political front works and is no small part dependent upon the close personal relationships which have been forged between British Prime Ministers and American Presidents. Such relationships are most important in times of war as Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt combination showed. They are of great significance as well in times of peace and even in peace time wars continue. In more recent times Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan became the best political friends. America provided valuable military intelligence to Britain during the Falklands war. Britain made a substantial military contribution to the war against Iraqi’s Saddam Hussein. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton became close personal friends, and the Prime Minister went out of his way to support Bill Clinton when he faced impeachment proceedings. Messrs. Blair and Bush recently initiated an Anglo-American aerial bombing raid in a further effort enforce the no fly zone and to subdue Saddam Hussein.

Although there have been cut backs for budgetary reasons in recent years the United States still maintains a big military presence and air bases in the United Kingdom. There are few countries where the United States has not had difficulties because of local political pressure in maintaining a significant military presence. The worst that America has endured here in recent years with regard to its British military presence are the anti-nuclear protesters at Greenham Common.

The “Special Relationship” exists because at the highest political levels the chief executives of both countries have built and maintained a good personal relationship and such relationship has been anchored in a critical military co-operation.

The Anglo-American relationship is also based on a shared history, shared culture and a shared common language notwithstanding the famous Shavian comment about “two nations divided by a common language”. It is also no small part based on shared legal norms. This point was very clearly illustrated last year repeatedly during the American Bar Association convention in London which brought thousands of American lawyers to London. The fact that the Prime Minister, President Clinton, the First Lady and Cherie Blair were all lawyers may have been fortuitous but it does say something about legal norms and the significance of lawyers in politics on both sides of the Atlantic.

The current friendly Anglo-American relationship has a long history dating back to treaty of friendship signed in 1815 which concluded the hostilities of the War of 1812. Such treaty is perhaps the earliest of American treaties of friendship and commerce navigation which it has now established with great many nations throughout the world. The treaty is the basis of Treaty Trader and Treaty Investor status granted to Britons seeking to trade and invest and trade in the United States.

The Special Relationship is underpinned by a massive commercial British investment in the United States, and vice-versa. Britain still remains the largest overseas investor stateside and American investment in Britain out strips that of any other country.

Another pillar of such relationship is mass tourism. Tourism is critically important to England, particularly London, and the American tourist in London is a well known sight. The American is perhaps more camouflaged today then in earlier years when he might be immediately recognised in his Bermuda shorts. Florida is Britain’s leading long haul destination. In the 1980s when the United States first introduced visa free travel for tourists and business people seeking entry under the visa waiver pilot program (which has just recently been made permanent) the United Kingdom was the first country, whose nationals could enter the US for business or tourism without a visa.

In part, the Anglo-American relationship is formally based on a complex web of bilateral treaties between the United States and the United Kingdom covering matters such as income and inheritance taxation, extradition and commercial matters. However this web of bilateral treaties is no way unique as both the United States and the United Kingdom have such bilateral treaties with many other countries.

Although the Anglo-American relationship is long standing and it is special it does bow to the domestic political realties, particularly so in America. As America becomes more culturally and ethically diverse Britain is seen by a ever decreasing percentage of the American population as the “mother country”. There are for instance over 40 million Americans of Irish descent. In America’s annual diversity visa lottery program whereby 50,000 immigrant (green card) visas are granted to the winners of a world wide lottery plus their immediate dependants countries such as the United Kingdom and others from which there have been substantial immigration into America are specifically excluded. What is curious and is politically biased is that for visa lottery purposes the United Kingdom does not include Northern Ireland which is treated as a separate entity and the Northern Irish born British citizens are allowed to apply.

Domestic political realities are anchored in geo-political reality. The United States is an American power which has both an Atlantic and Pacific dimension and as population shifts with California now the most populist state the Pacific rim intakes on an increasingly more significant economic and strategic role. For Americans I would suspect if one asked with which country do they feel the States has a special relationship with it must be our northern neighbour, Canada, with which America shares over 3,000 miles of land border. America and Canada have in recent years formalised their American commercial and economic ties through the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Americans regard Britain as part of Europe and the United States has consistently supported Britain’s active participation in the European Union. The Special Relationship endures but Britain’s future is not as America’s 51st state nor does it make sense for Britain to sever its European Union ties in order to join NAFTA.