Our Greece to their Rome: The Asymmetry of the ‘Special Relationship’ | Sarah Kuszynski

Sarah Kuszynski is a Policy Fellow of The Pinsker Centre, a campus-based think tank which facilitates discussion on global affairs and free speech. The views in this article are the author’s own.

The term ‘special relationship’, often used to refer to Anglo-American relations, can seem rather outmoded given the dynamism of US-UK relations throughout history. During a webinar co-hosted by the Roger Scruton Centre and The Pinsker Centre, the former Number Ten Joint Chief of Staff, Nick Timothy, explained that he is “trying to avoid using the phrase ‘special relationship’… because [he doesn’t] really believe in it”. Similarly, the late German chancellor Helmut Schmidt once quipped “the relationship is so special that only one side knows it exists”. Despite this, the nature of Anglo-American relations is still worthy of appreciation and analysis. 

Harold Macmillan, in 1943 said of the Anglo-American alliance that “We…are Greeks in this American empire”. “You will find the Americans much as the Greeks found the Romans – great big… bustling people, more vigorous than we are.” Is this analogy still applicable today? If it is, does this tell us Britain is a powerful, somewhat autonomous, subject of American power or merely that the relationship is uneven? Rome’s victory at the Battle of Corinth in 146 BC was the final nail in the coffin for the Greek Empire. After this, Greece was a Roman client-state. Currently, the bilateral relationship between the US and the UK is among the strongest in the world and far more equal than that of Greece and Rome. However, the dynamic was not always this way, Anglo-American relations have certainly had significant bumps in the road. The American colonies declared independence in 1776, but the UK continued to pose a threat to the US decades after independence and so the two powers were initially bound by animosity. It was not until World War II that the US and the UK established the cooperative alliance we know today, with the expansion of US global power, and the continuing post-1900 decline of the British Empire. The product of this shift in the Anglo-American alliance is often termed the ‘special relationship’. This special relationship dates back to the days of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill’s war-time alliance, which Churchill later referred to in his famous ‘iron curtain’ speech. Even then, Churchill had no illusions about American altruism, given the UK’s indebtedness to the US post-WWII. However, the unity displayed was a turning point.

The UK has often had to ‘pay America’s price’ in the bi-lateral relationship. Harry Truman, at the dawn of the cold war, forbade discussion of the special relationship. For Truman and his Secretary of State Dean AchesonGreat Britain had lost an empire and not yet found a role”. Acheson’s remark belittles Britain as a global power and foregrounds America’s growing belief in its superiority. Similarly, the alliance did not stop Dwight Eisenhower from forcing Britain to abandon the retaking of the Suez Canal in November 1956. Suez entrenched the Greek, Roman parallel in Anglo-American relations. As Scott Lucas said Post-SuezBritain paid the price of permanent subservience to American policy”.  Evidently the ‘Romans’ in this analogy take after the motto Non ducor duco – ‘I am not led, I lead’.

Nevertheless, the UK retains its cultural appeal in a similar way to Greece in this analogy. Despite being ruled by Rome from 146 BC, much of Hellenistic culture remained the same and Greece possessed soft power influence over Rome. Today, US-UK goods and services trade totals around $273bn and the UK remains a top destination for American students wishing to study abroad. Such expressions of soft power help to maintain historic ties built around a common language and shared heritage.

Importantly, the variable influence of the UK over the US and vice versa is not mere chance; Head of State relations somewhat determine the nature of the alliance. Some leaders got on well, such as Kennedy and Macmillan; Thatcher and Reagan; Bush and Blair. Others, including Eisenhower and Eden; Johnson and Wilson; Nixon and Heath; Obama and Cameron, often did not. In the ‘Trump era’, the special relationship rhetoric has been revived through statements such as “they’ll be great allies they always have been and There has never been a better ally. However, Donald Trump, like the Roman Emperors Caligula and Nero, is infamous for his unpredictability. Timothy also emphasised that “while… [Trump] talked a good game in terms of being supportive of Brexit…[he] never really trusted him to… be a good friend to Britain”. This is evidenced by Trump’s criticism of Brexit negotiations during Theresa May’s 2017 US visit. Hence, the degree of trust between Presidents and Prime Ministers results in the waxing and waning of the allies’ influence over one another. 

Now Joe Biden has taken over from Trump, we must look to the future. Biden has a mixed record on supporting the UK. Yet, Biden’s and Boris Johnson’s outlooks overlap in several areas. Johnson failed in persuading Trump to stay in the Iran nuclear deal, but Biden wishes to re-join it immediately. On China, the US and UK look set to form an even closer alliance. In this sense, calculations based on security and military threat, as opposed to cultural alignment, will be the bedrock of bi-lateral relations. Pericles once described Athens as “the school of Greece” and former chief aide, Dominic Cummings, argued the UK should be “the school of the world”. This globalist sentiment is shared by Biden and Johnson and will also guide their ‘special relationship’.

Finally, the UK possesses an increasingly powerful position as an independent transatlantic bridge: the UK will become G7 president, hold the UN Security Council presidency, and host the COP26 climate conference. This displays there is a limit to the usefulness of the Greece/Rome analogy, as we are clearly more autonomous than a client-state. Therefore, the above developments will enable commonalities between US and UK foreign policy to come to the fore.

In summary, the Anglo-American alliance has been and will continue to be a key, if lopsided, bilateral relationship. The UK has – on the whole – played the role of the loyal Greeks since the mid-twentieth century. However, we are not a simple client-state, nor does our international standing solely derive from American power. Asymmetric bi-lateral relations will remain in place now that President Biden and Prime Minister Johnson are at the helm.

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