What Does the Five Eyes Alliance Tell Us About the Anglosphere? | Sebastian Rowe-Munday


This week seventy-five years ago, the United States and the United Kingdom signed a radically unique secret alliance. To this day, no other countries share classified information, work together to gather information, and integrate staff across their agencies to the same extent as the United States and the United Kingdom. Following the dealignment of the former settler colonies to British foreign policy after the Second World War, the alliance has since grown to also include Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Today, this alliance is known as the ‘Five Eyes’. 

Remarkably little is known about this intelligence alliance. No single document exists in public knowledge to serve as a blueprint for the agreement. If such a document does exist, it is still highly classified. This week, the head of the British intelligence agency GCHQ and his counterpart at the American NSA released a rare joint statement, saying how “This alliance defines how we share communication, translation, analysis, and code breaking information, and has helped protect our countries and allies for decades’. The statement was accompanied by the public reveal of a diary detailing the war time meetings that began at Bletchley Park and led to the UKUSA deal being signed in March 1946. Though interesting for historians and intelligence scholars, the released excerpts say nothing that was not already in the public record. 

The alliance is a source of fascination because of its secrecy, but it also projects something deeper. The present popularity and seriousness given to the idea of CANZUK, an economic, political, but most of all strategic, union between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the UK is raising the issue of ‘Anglo-Saxonism’ once more. The special intelligence relationship is said to constitute the core of a distinct international, transnational, civilizational, and imperial entity within the global society, unmatched by any other states. This article seeks to firstly provide an overview of the alliance itself, and then to delve deeper, and try to explore just what is it that makes the Anglosphere so unique in international affairs. 

What do we know about the intelligence alliance?  

Given the scarcity of declassified resources available, it is difficult to authoritatively state its scope and dimensions. Before July 2017, the most recent available version of the agreement dated back to 1955. The document states that the signatories are to share, by default, all signals intelligence (SIGNT) they gather, as well as methods and techniques relating to SIGINT operations.  An appendix to that agreement elaborates further that the Five Eyes are to share ‘Continuously, currently and without request’ both ‘Raw’ intelligence in addition to ‘End product’.

Privacy International and Yale Law School’s Media Freedom & Information Access Clinic (MFIA) filed a lawsuit against the National Security Agency in 2017, leading to limited further declassification that year.  A description of SIGINT relations reveals that the NSA and GCHQ maintain a fluid and informal division of effort, where analysts are integrated into each other’s headquarters.  The two agencies exchange visits from all levels of personnel from the directorate down. The document states that ‘There is a heavy flow of raw intercept, technical analytic results, and SIGINT product between NSA and GCHQ’ which is facilitated by the fact that ‘GCHQ has direct access to NSA computer systems’.

Both sides are used to the distribution of analytical findings in both capitals. the institutional integration that has flowed from the 1946 UKUSA Agreement is so widespread that SIGINT customers seldom know which country generated either the access or the product itself. The 1955 document also importantly notes that Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are not to be considered as third parties, but as part of the relationship. This ‘Special consideration’ is documented in Appendix J of the 1955 version of the agreement and gives rise to what we now know as the Five Eyes Alliance. 

As the recently declassified diary excerpts illustrate, that the special intelligence relationship was initiated, continued, and expanded following close wartime cooperation.  The global conflict prompted Bletchley and Arlington to overcome the natural inclination towards secrecy natural to any intelligence organisation. The USA sent a contingent to Bletchley Park, and that presence seems to have been more important to forging a permanent relationship than any formal agreement. The two states were brought together on an intimate, personal level in a way that could not have been achieved through any normal diplomatic means.

Intelligence constitutes the most secretive part of the state

The phrase international intelligence cooperation can sound like an oxymoron, given that intelligence is the area in which governments are least likely to cooperate with each other. Former director general of the UK Security Service Sir Steven Lander tries to explain this by noting that the two governments share many preconceptions about international issues, and naturally pull together in the international arena. This is a basic argument that leaves much unanswered. We are led to believe that intelligence cooperation is born out of specific functional purposes behind US-UK relations, with the recognisable examples being the Second World War, the Cold War, and the War on Terror. Both sides perceive that it is needed, and both continue to forge together in roughly the same direction. In the modern globalised world, their interactions in their relations with other actors is on a continuum with expansion.

Yet the post-war intelligence alliance between the United States and the United Kingdom is unique and goes deeper than any other formal alliance that we can see today. To put it bluntly, other Western states with the same geopolitical outlook, the same functionalist goals, and the same liberal-democratic political-social systems are simply not given the same breadth of access to information, and decision-making opportunities by the United States as it gives the United Kingdom.  It is too simplistic to suggest that the UK-USA relationship is cemented on abstract notions like ‘Liberal-democratic’ values, when states such as France and Germany, with the same values, do not have the same level of interconnectedness in their relations with either the UK or USA.

It is also not as if the UK and USA have been that closely aligned for the previous 75 years. In the Suez crisis of 1956, Britain actively deceived and betrayed the United States in making a secret deal with France and Israel to attack Egypt. The UK also had three periods of Labour government that were socialist in policy and ideology. In the second of these, Britain broke with the United States again and refused to join the Vietnam War. But possibly the biggest threat to the alliance came from the fact that during the early years of the Cold War, various Soviet agents had successfully infiltrated British intelligence, with the most infamous double agents known as the Cambridge Five. 

Despite gradual de-alignment of political interests since the intimate wartime relationship, the intelligence relationship has weathered the storms and maintained itself with more or less the same unique level of trust up to the present day. These have little to do with mutually held threat perspectives, and everything to do with shared culture and identity. 

A Deeper Identity?

The intimate trust relationship that the subsequent intelligence alliance was founded upon predates the Second World War, although exactly when remains a matter of discussion.  Two general dates emerge as possible contenders, rapprochement at the end of the 19th century and the early 1930s. Yet the date is not particularly important here, rather the fact that it existed before the existential threats of Nazism or post-war Soviet communism. What was created at this time was a shared strategic culture that existed in a more general sense as a worldview, a fundamental cognitive orientation. 

According to Michael Herman, there is a particular mentality that accompanies Anglo-Saxon approaches to how their intelligence institutions relate to a globalizing world, what tasks they should perform and what constitutes good intelligence. From joint implementation of national estimative processes, the concept of conducting strategic assessments of countries as a whole, joint or combined military operations, the Echelon network, and the drafting of new laws of war manuals. It constitutes an ethnocentric conception of intelligence that bears little relationship to mainstream intelligence activity around the world. 

Given the clear surface political differences between the US and the UK before the Second World War, with US anti-colonialist sentiment and general economic rivalry, Anglo-Saxon identity may be the key factor. The puzzle of Anglo-American conflict becoming unthinkable and close cooperation dependable, becomes easier to explain through the lens of cultural and racial identity. From this perspective, race is not real in a biological sense, but instead refers to a racialized identity of a social kind that existed because people believed it existed.

Though the United States had a long-standing position of anti-colonialism, why did they detest French imperialism more than British imperialism? In the aftermath of the Suez crisis, France was shunned by the United States, leading to the French state adopting a Eurocentric stance that exists to the present day. Yet when it came to the UK, the affair proceeded in the words of President Eisenhower, as a ‘Family spat’ rather than anything more serious. The US essentially framed the military intervention as un-British. By placing culpability for the situation on the pro-Suez, Tory politicians, rather than the British ‘Self’, the US succeeded in getting Britain to abandon its mission through creating a major misfit between British identity and reality. The US was reminding Britain that they share the same disciplined subjectivity, and the Suez intervention was an attempt by a section of British society to disrupt the states shared identity.

Are there identity attributes associated with the Anglo-sphere states that lead them to perceive threat in a manner different from other members of the West’s security community? And could it be that among these identity attributes, being a liberal democracy is neither here nor there? There is no good reason to think that the only attributes of identity that are relevant to a discussion on security cooperation must be those related to the ambiguous political-economic category we call liberal-democracy. Missing from liberal-democratic arguments are the role of macro-historical processes.

Disciplined Subjectivity

The uniqueness of the UK and US intelligence relationship, and national security relationship more broadly, is a fundamental structure of common identity recognition which can theoretically be attributed to Kantian Liberalism.  Common identity revolves around a commitment to a specific form of disciplined subjectivity, which in this context is derived from a shared Anglo-Saxon identity.  

Recognition of a deep, shared cognitive orientation cannot be reduced to shared political principles. Rather it is an ethical judgement, in which the status of legitimate subjectivity is given to the self and others. A fragile surface commonality between the UK and the US in the political arena is founded upon the subjective commonality lying beneath all institutional structures. It is this shared subjectivity that becomes the basis of both trust and predictability. The Anglo-Saxon identity moves within a world which possesses stabilities of social perception and action which bind the agents of that identity together in structures of mutual intelligibility and recognition at a practical level.

The Anglosphere as a whole

It is when the Anglosphere as a whole is analysed, rather than the specific UK-USA relationship, that we start to understand the foundational role of Anglo-Saxon identity in the relationship. Australia, New Zealand, and Canada were brought into the relationship, and allocated almost the same level of trust, because of their shared Anglo-Saxon heritage and close, collective identification with the disciplined subjectivity that forms the familial trust of the special relationship. Whilst it could still be argued that the three states held functionally valuable strategic assets (mainly relating to their geography) which allowed the network to expand globally, functionality arguments do not explain why Australia and New Zealand were chosen instead of similarly liberal-democratic Asian states like Japan or South Korea.

The special intelligence relationship transcends politics. It was not policymakers in the corridors of power who implemented this alliance on a daily basis, year after year, and made it a perhaps more tightly woven fabric than the two nations’ policymaking elites intended. The intelligence relationship maintains its specialness through the fact that it is mostly out of political control. Instead, it is professional practitioners, who succeeded in creating a strategic culture within the Anglo-Saxon intelligence community.  Information is regularly withheld by government officials so that elected politicians do not know what is going on. Sometimes the secret goes even further, with New Zealand’s former Labor Prime Minister David Lange stating that it was not until he had read about it in a book that he had any idea that New Zealand had been committed to an international integrated electronic network.

Another example of the depth of the relationship occurred in 1985 when New Zealand’s Labor government had a major policy disagreement with the United States over nuclear policy. New Zealand refused to allow the USS Buchanan, an American nuclear capable warship, entry into its waters, leading to a large political fall-out between the two allies. As far as the public knew, all intelligence ties between New Zealand and the United States were severed.  However, though joint military technical research was cut considerably, most of the intelligence flow from the United States continued uninterrupted. The United States government wanted other countries to see New Zealand punished for its nuclear-free policies, but intelligence co-operation was too prized to be interrupted by politics.

The three independent dominions could be trusted to possess the same cognitive orientation as the United Kingdom and the United States. The intelligence alliance is only one component of the wider alliance between the five countries, but it is the deepest and most secret part. There are also connections at the trans-governmental level that we simply do not see in many other international contexts, of which the Five-Eyes are one manifestation. Government officials are exchanged with ease among these dyads, with Australia-New Zealand, Australia-Canada the closest examples. The willingness of the United States to give the command of units of its armed forces to Canadian officers on secondment speaks to a culture of closeness that is not to be found in other dyadic relationships.

Anglo-Saxon identity is the original foundation stone, from which derived the disciplined, common subjectivity that underpins the unique level of trust between agents of the Anglo-Saxon states. This in turn facilitated the establishment of the closest intelligence relationship that we can see in the world today. As we move further into an uncertain 21st century, great-power politics is growing to dominate world affairs once again. Furthermore, questions of place and identity have seemingly taken over popular discourse. A true analysis of what the Anglosphere is, and what it means, is surely overdue in order to make sense of the complex world in which we live.


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1 Response

  1. Don Briggs says:

    Sebastian Rowe-Munday has offered us a profound analysis of why Five Eyes has survived many political disagreements among its members to keep Western civilisation safe. The Commonwealth, led by HM The Queen is another example of the durability of our Anglo-Saxon heritage, which is confronted by new challenges today. Our politicians would do well to keep this at the forefront of their minds.

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