Following the election of a new US President, former British Ambassador to the United States, Lord Renwick, offers a comprehensive account of the history of the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the US
Fighting with Allies begins with the burning of the White House by the British admiral, Sir George Cockburn, in 1814 – an episode better remembered in the US than in Britain, as it gave America its national anthem when after the bombardment of Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key saw that “our flag was still there.”
Throughout the next century, relations were mainly adversarial. One British envoy lamented the influence of Congress, “the dregs having got up to the top.” Another was unimpressed by the Republican candidate for election in 1860: “a man unknown, a rough Westerner, of the lowest origin and little education.” The candidate in question was Abraham Lincoln. Queen Victoria worried that the United States might seize Canada.
In World War I, Woodrow Wilson was so determined to preserve neutrality that when an American ship was sunk by the Germans, he declared the US to be “too proud to fight.” It was only the declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare by the German High Command that brought the US into the war, with US involvement only becoming militarily effective in 1918 by which time, however, it also was decisive.
As the US adopted prohibition, Winston Churchill, reviewing the American troops on their way back to the US, exclaimed to George Marshall: “What a magnificent body of men never to have another drink!” But the US thereafter, reverting to a rejection of foreign entanglements, had no involvement in opposing the rise of fascism in the 1930s.
My book provides a comprehensive account of the history of the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the US from its inception in the desperate summer of 1940 to the present day. It is based on the memoirs and experiences of those directly involved at the time. It is an alliance that, throughout, has been strongly influenced by the outsized characters on both sides of the Atlantic and the relations between them.
Franklin D Roosevelt understood very clearly what was at stake in the war against Hitler, but was able to win re-election in 1940 only by declaring that: “your sons are not going to be sent to fight in foreign wars.” Immediately following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour that brought the US into the war, Churchill spent Christmas with Roosevelt in the White House. According to Harry Hopkins, as the President wheeled himself into the Lincoln bedroom, Churchill emerged from his bathroom wearing nothing at all. As Roosevelt retreated, Churchill is supposed to have said: “No, no, Mr President, the Prime Minister of Great Britain has nothing to hide from the President of the United States!”
An equally close relationship existed between Harold Macmillan and John Kennedy. When Kennedy complained to him about press criticism of his wife, Jackie, Macmillan asked why he bothered about such matters. Kennedy said that surely Macmillan would be upset if the press attacked his wife. “What if they said that Lady Dorothy is a drunk?” “I would say”, replied Macmillan, “You should have seen her mother!”
The relationship between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan was vital to Britain’s success in recovering the Falklands. When Reagan was asked by Alexander Haig to telephone Thatcher to urge her to compromise, he found himself unable to get in a word edgeways. As he and his staff listened on the speaker phone in the Oval office to her diatribe about the need to defeat aggression Reagan exclaimed: “Isn’t she wonderful?”
There was an equally close relationship between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, and then, more improbably, with George W Bush, derailed by the invasion of Iraq.
Throughout its history, the press on both sides of the Atlantic have forecast the end of the ‘special relationship;’ yet, through all the successive changes of Presidents and Prime Ministers, it has shown a Lazarus like tendency to survive. That is because it has not been based primarily on sentiment or history, but on common interests and a similar view of world affairs. The hard headed reality is that Britain is as dependent as ever for its defence and security on the relationship with the United States, and the US and Britain are by far the largest investors in each other’s countries.
No less indisputably, the relationship has played a major part in the making of the post war world. The Anglo-American alliance has made an indispensable contribution to the establishment of the United Nations, the North Atlantic Alliance, the IMF, the World Bank, victory in two world wars and in Korea and the Gulf, the defeat of communism and the freeing of eastern Europe.
The relationship has often been marked by fierce disagreements, but also its durability and extraordinary achievements over the past eight decades. It has undergone profound changes, the most important of which has been the increasing disparity of power. Brexit will change its nature, as the United States traditionally has relied on Britain to maintain close ties between Europe and the US.
The Donald Trump candidacy in the Presidential election has been a throwback to the ‘America First’ campaigns of the past – representing neo-isolationism and protectionism, with an insistence that America’s allies must bear a greater part of the cost of defending themselves. The only major capital in which his victory has been welcomed is Moscow. But the founding fathers built formidable checks and balances into the US constitution. What Trump programmes are adopted will depend on the cooperation of the Congressional leaders. His tendency to make off-the-cuff statements will be dangerous in foreign policy.
So far as the relationship with Britain is concerned, however, I would expect it to remain close. Trump will count on Britain’s continuing military support for the campaign for the Islamic State. He welcomed Brexit, will need some friends in the world and should be able to establish a positive relationship with Theresa May. While Brexit will impose significant costs for Britain in terms of trade with Europe, it creates the opportunity to negotiate a free trade agreement with the United States, which the Trump team have said they will support.
It is extremely important to the future health of the Alliance that Britain and France, who are the only two other allies with significant military capabilities, should be seen to be actively engaged with the US in the fight against ISIS, and in helping to deal with future crises. My book seeks to address the lessons to be learned from the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, but concludes that the relationship remains as important as ever to Britain today.
The especially close relationship between Britain and the US is based not on sentiment, or on history, but on common interests. For that reason it will continue under Donald Trump, as it has under every US President since World War II. In the words of Winston Churchill: “there is only one thing worse than fighting with allies – and that is having to fight without them.”
Fighting with Allies: America and Britain in Peace and War By Robin Renwick (Biteback Publishing, £25) is available to buy now