Sir Christopher Meyer: Boris is right about UK-US special relationship

Boris Johnson is right about the ‘special relationship’ – it’s simply an excuse for the US to treat us as its poodle, writes former British ambassador to the United States SIR CHRISTOPHER MEYER

There was a good deal of fluttering in the diplomatic dovecotes earlier this week when it was revealed by the American magazine, The Atlantic, that our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, does not like the phrase Special Relationship to describe Britain’s ties with the United States.

Apparently this revelation was made in a telephone conversation with President Biden himself. 

Downing Street have since confirmed that the PM was not casting aspersions on the substance of the relationship, but expressing his dislike of a phrase that makes the UK look ‘needy’.

Amen to that. When I was British ambassador to the U.S., I was invited by the American Secretary of State, Colin Powell, for a discussion on Jack Straw’s first visit to Washington as Foreign Secretary. 

He showed me the typed text of his speech of welcome. Somebody had scrawled in black ink across the top of the page: ‘Don’t forget the Special Relationship!!!’

I pointed this out. Powell replied with a laugh: ‘We know you Brits will go apes**t if I don’t mention the Special Relationship.’ 

We are told that Boris asked the President to go easy on his use of the phrase when he comes to our country later this week for the G7 summit. He may be disappointed

I curled up inside, just as I did a decade later when I saw Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s look of relief when President Obama uttered the phrase on a visit to Britain.

We are told that Boris asked the President to go easy on his use of the phrase when he comes to our country later this week for the G7 summit. He may be disappointed.

The White House released a statement a few days ago, telling us that President Biden would seek to ‘advance’ the Special Relationship in his meetings with The Queen and the Prime Minister. 

Only a month or so ago U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken told a press conference in London that the Special Relationship was ‘enduring’ and that the U.S. had no closer ally than the United Kingdom.

Previous prime ministers, when talking about UK/US relations, have tried something not dissimilar. 

Harold Wilson wanted to call the relationship ‘close’ rather than special. 

By the time he had refused President Lyndon Johnson’s request for British troops in Vietnam it was not even close.

Edward Heath went for ‘natural’. David Cameron preferred ‘essential’. None of these epithets survived.

As early as 1986 a concerted effort was made by a group of British and American scholars to be shot of the Special Relationship in their study of ties between our two countries.

In the preface to their subsequent book, the editor noted that: ‘The idea… of a Special Relationship would not go away. Indeed it haunted the discussions.

‘Eventually it was referred to as the ghost, ever present yet elusive, derided by some but acknowledged by all.’

The title of the book? The Special Relationship.

The White House released a statement a few days ago, telling us that President Biden would seek to ‘advance’ the Special Relationship in his meetings with The Queen and the Prime Minister

If the Americans are happy to lavish extravagant praise on the Special Relationship, why should we object? 

There are, in fact, several reasons why we should be sparing in its use.

It was, of course, first used by Winston Churchill in 1946 in the immediate afterglow of victory in World War II, when Britain and America had fought and sacrificed together.

But that was then and this is now. 

On this side of the Atlantic the idea of the Special Relationship has turned into an idealised vision of UK/US relations, a rhetorical device, which generates unrealistic expectations of what it can deliver (like a quick and easy trade deal between our two countries).

It has become an end in itself instead of a means for securing British interests, a charge often levelled at Tony Blair. 

It has encouraged prime ministers to behave like poodles. I banned the phrase in the Washington embassy over 20 years ago.

One reason why some Americans are so attached to the Special Relationship is that they like to use it as a stick with which to beat us in negotiation. 

Many is the time I have been told that my failure to accept (unreasonable) American demands means I have no loyalty to the Special Relationship. I am hastening its demise.

Once I had to confront the then Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott over his threat to impose tariffs on Scottish cashmere wool.

I invoked the Special Relationship. ‘Special? Then try harder!’ he bellowed. It all worked out in the end.

We should not forget that, until World War II, there was little in British and American history to suggest a special intimacy. 

To the contrary, after our defeat in the American Revolution at the end of the 18th century, we fought the War of 1812 and on several occasions almost came to blows along the U.S./Canada border and in South America.

In the 20th century the moment of comity during World War I soon dissolved into such acrimony during negotiations to limit naval armaments that the Americans drew up plans for war with Britain.

It has become an end in itself instead of a means for securing British interests, a charge often levelled at Tony Blair. It has encouraged prime ministers to behave like poodles. I banned the phrase in the Washington embassy over 20 years ago

Strong anti-British forces worked hard in Washington to keep the U.S. out of World War II on Britain’s side.

Even during the war, the great historian, Sir Michael Howard, noted that too often Anglo-American military leadership was marked by ‘suspicious dislike on the American side and patronising contempt on the British’.

Since 1945 UK/U.S. relations at the level of high politics have been marked more by their volatility than stability — seen on a graph, a series of peaks and troughs.

The closeness, for example, of Macmillan and JFK, Thatcher and Reagan, Blair and Clinton, Blair and George W. Bush must be set against the coolness between Heath and Ford, Wilson and Johnson, Thatcher and George Bush senior (she exhorted him not to go wobbly before the first Iraq war), Major and Clinton (who gave Gerry Adams a visa before the IRA had called a ceasefire in Northern Ireland, much to Major’s fury).

This is not to say our relations with America are not close. The U.S. is our closest partner and ally. 

It is just that the notion of a Special Relationship is a distraction the Americans — who will always put their country first — use to their own advantage.

Away from our obsession with it, beneath the water line, lie the common and convergent interests between the UK and the U.S.

These cover trade and investment on a massive scale, even without a formal trade agreement; defence — nuclear deterrence, fast jets and a multitude of joint projects; the sharing of intelligence of the most sensitive kind.

The physical embodiment of these common interests is the carrier strike group, led by the Royal Navy’s flagship, the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, with U.S. marines, pilots and aircraft on board, plus an escort of warships from several nations, including the U.S.

As you read this, the group is sailing eastwards to the Indo-Pacific region, to rendezvous with allied navies and uphold freedom of navigation in international waters.

Our national hero, Admiral Lord Nelson, would applaud. After all, once a year officers from the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps dine together in the British Embassy in Washington to celebrate Trafalgar Day on October 21. Now that, I accept, is rather special.

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