The American Legion Magazine, 12.1.16
By Alan W. Dowd
1946, during a speech in
Missouri, Winston Churchill declared that “a special relationship” exists
between the United Kingdom and the United States. Ever the visionary, Churchill
believed this “fraternal association” would be characterized by “growing
friendship,” “intimate relationship between our military advisers,” “common
study of potential dangers,” “similarity of weapons and manuals,” “the
interchange of officers” and “joint use of all Naval and Air Force bases.” He
even mused about the prospect of “common citizenship.”
Washington and London never got quite
that far, but Churchill
was on to something. Seventy years later, the “special relationship” binding
the U.S. and Britain still serves as the cornerstone of virtually every major diplomatic
and military project in which the United States engages—and by extension, the
cornerstone of the liberal global order these united nations began building in
America and Britain were anything but united before the world wars. They fought
in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and almost came to blows in the early 1900s.
Yet the foundation of close collaboration was always there. Less than a
decade after the end of the War of 1812, Britain
and America collaborated to secure this hemisphere against European
intervention: When it appeared that European powers would try to reassert
control over newly independent countries in South America, as historian John
Lewis Gaddis notes, the British “suggested a joint Anglo-American statement
ruling out future European colonization in the Western Hemisphere.” The Monroe
administration turned “the British proposal into a unilateral
pronouncement”—the Monroe Doctrine—calculating, rightly, that the British Navy
would, in effect, enforce American policy because of a confluence of interests.
The U.S. bankrolled the British in
World War I, fought alongside them in the decisive final year of the war, and
by the 1930s America and Britain were sharing intelligence about Japan.
But it wasn’t until World War II that
these two great liberal democracies started to recognize that their
relationship was indeed special.
After Dunkirk, Churchill shared his
desperate dream of a day when “the new world, with all its power and might,
steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
As Britain fought alone against Hitler,
FDR opened the “great arsenal of democracy” to help Churchill fend off the
Nazis. Then, in early 1941, FDR’s envoy to Britain, Harry Hopkins, rose
during a dinner with Churchill and quoted from the Book of Ruth: “Whither thou
goest I will go, and whither thou lodgest I will lodge. Thy people shall be my
people, and thy God my God,” he declared, dramatically adding, “even to the end.”
Churchill wept openly.
Later in that pivot-point year of 1941,
Churchill and FDR rendezvoused in the North Atlantic to craft a statement of
shared values that would outline their war aims and bind their countries
together in building a durable postwar peace. It was called the Atlantic
Charter. By signing on to the Atlantic Charter, with its implicit rejection of
imperialism, Churchill was effectively signing off on the dissolution of the
British Empire. As historian Niall Ferguson observes, “The British regarded a
transfer of global power to the United States as the best available outcome of
Ever since, America and Britain have
stood together, bled together, led together.
During the war, British troops served
under American command, and Americans under British command. The two allies created a
Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS) to coordinate strategy, operations and tactics.
In his history of World War II, Gerhard Weinberg notes that the CCS forced the
Americans to adopt a standing structure for inter-service coordination, and it
yielded a vast web of sub-commands, procedures and relationships that paved the
way for the eventual creation of NATO.
The Anglo-American alliance deepened
after the war, enfolding cooperation on trade and monetary issues, intelligence
sharing, weapons procurement and development, military basing and training, and
strategic military doctrine. By the mid-1950s, for instance, Britain and
America agreed, in the words of a Pentagon memo, to “coordinate the atomic strike
plans of the United States Air Force with the Royal Air Force” and share
“atomic bombs in the event of general war.”
Thanks to Anglo-American resolve, the Cold War was won without those bombs ever
Although the two partners have had
occasional disagreements—Suez and Vietnam come to mind—they have been nearly
inseparable in navigating the postwar world: Together, they rescued West
Berlin, forged NATO and deterred the Red Army. They defended Korea at the
beginning of the Cold War, liberated Kuwait at the end and faced down Moscow in
the years between. They shepherded Eastern Europe toward freedom and stabilized
the Balkans. They ousted the Taliban, disarmed Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein.
And today, they are blunting the Islamic State’s advance and fighting jihadism.
Those in-between years included smaller
crises that had a big impact: When
Argentina invaded Britain’s Falkland Islands, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
vowed to reverse the aggression. President Ronald Reagan told his staff, “Give
Maggie everything she needs.” Washington allowed the
British expeditionary force to use the U.S. airbase at Ascension Island for
resupply; provided Britain weaponry and logistics support; and was prepared to
loan the Royal Navy the amphibious carrier USS Iwo Jima.
Thatcher returned the favor when Reagan
asked Britain to allow FB-111s to deploy from British basesfor airstrikes against Libya’s
command-and-control assets and terror-training facilities. “It made America
realize that Britain was her real and true friend,” Thatcher said.
In 1998, when the UN lost interest in
enforcing its own resolutions, only Britain sent warplanes to assist the U.S.
in targeting Iraq’s WMD sites. Then, as Britain and America began to
contemplate military operations to protect Kosovo, Prime Minister Tony Blair recalled
Hopkins’ toast during a summit with President Bill Clinton. This time, it
was America’s leader who wept.
When war came to America’s shores,
Blair rushed to America’s side. “America has no truer friend than Great
Britain,” President George W. Bush declared before a joint session of Congress soon
after 9/11. Fittingly, Blair was on hand. Through the smoke and blood and
controversy that followed 9/11, Blair recognized that the war on terror was not
just America’s war.
That war has now spanned 15 years, six
national elections in Britain and America, four prime ministers, two presidents
and too many fronts to count—Manhattan and Madrid, Kandahar and Karbala, Bali
and Baghdad and Boston, Paris and Peshawar, Syria and San Bernardino, America’s
Pentagon and Britain’s Underground—which brings us back to the depth of the “special
years may seem like a long time to wage war, but British military commanders were
ready for a lengthy war from the very beginning. In the autumn of 2001, Adm. Michael Boyce, then-chief of the British Defense
Staff, grimly predicted that the war on terror “may last 50 years.”
As the struggle against jihadism takes
on the characteristics of the Cold War—in its duration, geopolitical and
geographic scope, ideological dimensions, economic and human costs—it appears
the British and American militaries are moving beyond mere coordination and
toward coalescence.The examples abound.
British government’s 2015 defense review confirms that the U.S. and U.K. plan
“to fly aircraft from each other’s ships, and work together on operating them
from the land and at sea.”
Toward that end, U.S. Marines will deploy F-35s on combat sorties from
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.Already, British pilots are flying
operational missions from U.S. aircraft carriers to maintain their proficiency
until the F-35s are ready.
Scores of U.S. Coast Guardsmen are serving with
the Royal Navy.Some 9,000 U.S. troops are stationed in the U.K., and 750 British personnel are stationed in the U.S.—in 30 different states. For instance, the RAF has a special unit at Creech AFB, Nev., operating
killer drones. British submarines port at the U.S. base in Kings Bay,
Georgia. Likewise, Britain allows the U.S. military
to maintain bases on the British territory of Diego Garcia, and a number of U.S. assets nest at
facilities in the U.K.: refueling and reconnaissance planes, missile-defense
radars, F-15s, and soon F-35s. After Moscow’s assault on Ukraine, the U.S.
deployed B-52s and B-2s to Britain.
recently opened a permanent naval base in Bahrain, which, not coincidentally, serves
as headquarters for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
In 2011, the two allies formed a
National Security Strategy Board to “develop a shared view of emerging
challenges” and “how we should deal with them.” The
board is co-chaired by the British and American national security advisers.
In 2013, then-CNO Adm. Jon Greenert
raised the prospect of British assets being blended into the Pentagon’s Global Force Management System, the process by which U.S. military chiefs determine where
personnel and equipment are deployed. “It would be unprecedented that two
nations could bring together such a far-reaching strategic commitment,”
Greenert said. “It is feasible, but it would be totally unprecedented.”
That same year, Britain’s entire Defense
Staff huddled with the entire U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff—the first
reconstitution of the CCS since 1948. They convened again in
Somewhere, Churchill is smiling.
there are challenges confronting the “special relationship.”
There’s a sense in London that the U.S. has taken the “special relationship”
for granted at times.
the Bush administration decided to go to war in Iraq, there was a perception
that Britain was expected to fall in line, which triggered domestic political
challenges for Blair.
Obama administration offloaded Guantanamo detainees onto the British territory
of Bermuda, Washington failed to consult Britain. “This is not the kind of
behavior one expects from an ally,” a British official declared.
Worse, President Barack Obama publicly criticized then-Prime Minister David Cameron over Britain’s handling of
Libya and Syria.
There’s a sense in Washington that
Britain is retreating from the global stage.
post-recession austerity measures undertaken by Cameron led to deep cuts in
Britain’s military strength: The Royal Navy ebbed from 89 ships to 65. Britain
had two aircraft carriers in 2008 but has none today. The combat-aircraft fleet
shrank from 189 warplanes to 149; the Joint Helicopter Command had 257 aircraft
in 2008 but has just 164 today. The British Army’s Regular Forces have been
whittled down from 101,340 troops to 84,240.
2015 defense review reverses some of these cuts. Before handing the reins to
Theresa May in July, Cameron added $18 billion
to planned defense spending over the next decade.Two
new aircraft carriers will enter service by 2020. And Britain is purchasing 138
F-35s, new midair refuelers and new heavy-lift planes.
However, much of the damage has been done. Between 2007 and 2014, British
defense spending fell by 5.5 percent. After
2010, Britain withdrew thousands of troops from continental Europe, delayed
upgrades to its nuclear deterrent, pulled back from operations in the Middle
East and Afghanistan (the House of Commons in 2013 blocked Cameron’s efforts to
launch airstrikes in Syria after the Assad regime used chemical weapons, and
Britain now has just 450 troops in Afghanistan, fewer than Italy, Turkey,
Romania, Germany or Georgia), and used accounting tricks (shifting monies from the Foreign Office to the military)
to keep defense spending above NATO’s 2-percent-of-GDP standard.
Moreover, the White House worries that Britain’s internal debate over European
Union membership—and consequent withdrawal from the EU in the wake of the
so-called “Brexit” referendum—is further evidence of disengagement.
All of this has
invited questions about Britain’s global role.
United Kingdom in the European Union gives us much greater confidence about the
strength of the transatlantic union,”Obama said in 2015. (That served only to exacerbate frustrations with
Washington in London. By inserting himself into Britain’s politics, Obama drew
criticism from 100 MPs, who signed an open letter chiding the president.)
“We need an engaged United Kingdom,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter
says, expressing anxieties that Britain has taken “actions which seem to
very concerned about the GDP investment in the U.K.,” Gen. Ray Odierno, former
Army chief of staff, adds. “In the past, we would have a British Army division
working alongside an American division. Now it might be a British brigade
inside an American division.”
Russian submarine was spotted off the Scottish coast, French and Canadian
assets searched for the intruder, owing to
the fact Britain had scrapped its sub-hunting planes. Until recently, British operations
against ISIS were limited to Iraq, prompting U.K. Defense Secretary Michael
Fallon to observe, “The streets of Britain at the moment are being kept safe by
American, Australian and French aircraft.”However, in December 2015, the House of Commons authorized
airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria. Within hours, British warplanes
joined their U.S. allies in the skies over Syria. Only the U.S. has conducted
more airstrikes in Iraq than Britain. Moreover, Britain is basing a battalion of
ground troops in Estonia as part of NATO’s defense of the Baltics. These are
hopeful signs that Britain’s holiday from global leadership was over.
A strong Britain is key to the “special relationship,” and a strong “special
relationship” is key to U.S. security. After all, Britain serves as a bridge to the world; a force-multiplier
for U.S. power; a true friend in an unfriendly world.
Churchill put it, the British Commonwealth and the United States, working
together, have the capacity to yield “an overwhelming assurance of security…not
only for us but for all, not only for our time, but for a century to come.”
 Morris, The
Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, p.532.
 John Lewis
Gaddis, Surprise Security and the American Experience, pp.23-24.
 Weinberg, A World
at Arms, pp.306, 724-725.
BBC News, “War on terror may last 50years,” news.bbc.co.uk, October 27,
"Total Military Personnel and Dependent End Strength By Service, Regional
Area, and Country," June 2015 and MoD, https://www.gov.uk/government/world/organisations/british-defence-staff-in-the-usa, 2015.
http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-14218909 and https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/373115/af-quarterly_personnel_report_oct14.pdf
Times/Stockholm International Peace Research Institute
and http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-23892783 and http://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_2016_07/20160707_2016-07-RSM-Placemat.pdf