The Special Relationship UK and US

The term ‘special relationship’ is used to describe the Anglo-American relations soon after the Second World War when Britain and the United States developed a close working relationship and co-operated extensively in terms of military alliance, intelligence, diplomacy, nuclear affairs and also in cultural and intellectual life. The relationship between President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill established the beginning of an extraordinary relationship in political history. The term ‘special relationship’ was coined by Winston Churchill in his Sinews of Peace Address (commonly called the Iron Curtain speech) at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri, on 5 March 1946.

Arguably, a period in which both Britain and the United States had a lot to gain from profound cooperation was the late 1940’s.Britain had been weakened by the effects of the War and required financial assistance to restore its industries and rebuild its cities. The United States on the other hand was facing Soviet threat and was restricted by isolationist tendencies and domestic dissent on the domestic political front. Gallagher (2004:110) states that this period was “a time when London and Washington recognized the need to maintain the kind of unity that had been so important during the fight against Japan and Nazi Germany”.

The Anglo-American relationship had several distinctive features. In the axis of intelligence, the United States and Britain shared a wide range of information than either does among its other allies; especially during the Second World War and thereafter restored under the 1948 UKUSA agreements of which Dickie (1994:260) describes as “the most fruitful joint venture of the Anglo-American partnership, with extraordinary dividends for both sides”. This agreement set up the signals intelligence (SIGINT) apparatus of the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In the same vein, British intelligence operatives worked with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and functioned from the US embassy in London (Dumbrell, 2001).

Britain and the United States also shared numerous bilateral defence links left over from the Second World War. Colman (2004) states that In December 1941, the cooperation between the British and American governments reached its peak with the signing of the Anglo-American Alliance and the creation of the combined chief of staff which is a collaborated British and American military command which presides over all Anglo-American operations. The NATO alliance, focused on the defence of Western Europe had Britain and the United States as its leading members. The formation of NATO in 1949 had the British Army of the Rhine (BOAR) as the Britain’s land force contribution with over 50,000 troops stationed in Germany in 1962 (Colman, 2004).

The special relationship resulted in the Atlantic Charter of 1941, which is a set of guiding principles at the coming of peace targeted to govern relations between states. The Anglo-American relationship was furthered strengthened by economic connections, atomic and nuclear matters, and considering the fact that both countries share a common heritage and a common language. It is also pertinent to note the personal relationships that existed between some American Presidents and British Prime Ministers, significantly Churchill (whose mother was American) and Roosevelt and years later between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. The extent of the unity of purpose and cooperation which existed between the British and American governments during the Second World War remains one of the most phenomenal aspects of that period.

However, the special relationship was intensely strained during the Suez crisis of 1956 and raised questions as to how special the relationship really was in reality. This essay seeks to address how the Suez crisis impaired the UK, USA special relationship and to decipher if the relationship was really that special.

The Suez crisis of 1956 greatly strained the relationship between Britain and America; the crisis exposed their differences to colonialism, communism and their contrasting stakes in the Middle East. Also, the Anglo-American Alliance and Britain’s position as a great power was in ruins during this period.

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The Suez Canal was a sea route of vast strategic importance to Britain. As the main significance of the British Empire; it connected Britain with India and the pacific. The major figures involved were Anthony Eden, Britain’s Prime Minister, US president Dwight D. Eisenhower, his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles and the Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser.

The Suez Canal was the focal point of Britain’s military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean especially since Britain domination of Egypt since the 1880’s (Dimbleby and Reynolds, 1988). Eden, who was Churchill’s successor as prime Minister argued that the Canal was Britain’s great imperial lifeline, particularly for oil (The Economist, 27 July 2006). For the Egyptians on the other hand, the Canal Zone was a constant reminder of the despised British occupation and efforts to terminate Britain’s presence in the Canal Zone were escalated especially after the military coup of 1952 which ousted the luxurious king Farouk. It became somewhat difficult to operate the canal as Egyptians boycotted British employment and attacked British personnel. (Dimbleby and Reynolds, 1988)

The British government came to a decision in 1954 to evacuate the Canal Zone by June 1956. Eden hoped that this decision would foster a new relationship with Egypt and also since the American and British government agreed to financially support Nasser with a loan of $70 Million towards the procurement of the Aswan High Dam to provide better irrigation and electric power to Egypt. (Dimbleby and Reynolds, 1988)

However, despite the loan offered by Britain and America, Nasser was not forthcoming, he undermined the Baghdad pact, a regional defence organization which was British-led and rejected the Anglo-American peace treaty plans with Israel. His ambition was to politically resurrect the whole Arab world against colonialism and opposition of great powers exploitation of the Middle East. Dimbleby and Reynolds (1988) state that while accepting the loan from the Anglo-American government, Nasser ordered arms from the Soviet Union through Czechoslovakia.

By March 1956, the Anglo-American governments could no longer put up with Nasser; Eden condemned and compared Nasser with Mussolini and Hitler of the 1930s, adding that the Egyptian leader’s objective was to become a ‘Caesar from the Gulf to the Atlantic, and to kick us out of it all’ (Shuckburgh, 1987:327). Dulles the US secretary of state announced on 19 July 1956 that the Aswan loan offered to Egypt had been cancelled. Nasser retaliated on 26 July 1956 by declaring to an amazed world the nationalization of the Suez Canal, stressing that Egypt would be in charge of the canal and proceeds used to finance the Aswan dam.

Britain placed economic and political sanctions on Egypt as the British interest was in severe jeopardy, the British government was ready to use force to bring Nasser down. Eden tried to convince Eisenhower on the removal of the Nasser government for a regime friendlier to the West. However, Eisenhower was as unreceptive to Britain, just as Britain had been to America at the peak of the Dien Bien Phu crisis in Vietnam in 1954 (Louis and Owen, 1989)

America did not have much at stake in respect to the nationalization of the Suez Canal as Britain did and as such believed that diplomacy was the best option, Dulles on 2nd October told a news conference that under the North Atlantic Treaty, Suez was not a part of America’s obligations to her Allies. (Dimbleby and Reynolds, 1988)

Britain sort alliance with France as co-owners of the canal. Israel was encouraged to escalate the border raids in Sinai and invade Egypt signalling another Arab-Israeli War thereby posing a threat to the Suez Canal. Britain and France would exploit the opportunity as a pretext to intervene and secure the Suez Canal (The Economist, 27 July 2006). The American government was completely kept in the dark concerning these preparations for action.

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Eden concluded that although the Americans were in principle not happy with Britain’s use of force against Egypt to recover the canal, they would not completely oppose Britain. Outright American antagonism was least expected and that is exactly what Britain was faced with.

A twelve hours ultimatum was issued by London and Paris for Israel and Egypt to retreat from the canal which was to be taken over by British and French forces. Israel accepted this ultimatum while Egypt rejected it and on the 31st of October 1956, the British and French destroyed Egyptian airfields.

Eisenhower was infuriated by the obvious deception of his closest ally and Britain’s unwillingness to revert to diplomacy. Eisenhower, who was completely kept in the dark, felt utterly betrayed by his erstwhile allies, he told his aides “I’ve just never seen great powers make such a complete mess and botch of things” (Dimbleby and Reynolds, 1988:214). He was determined to bring the whole enterprise to a stop. The timing of Britain’s actions was further unfortunate for Eisenhower who was up for re-election on 6 November 1956 of which his intention was to win as the incumbent ‘peace’ president, and it was pertinent he showed his capability of controlling global diplomatic and military conflicts. As such, Eisenhower could not afford to get caught up in a foreign complicated situation of no direct interest to America.

America proved adept working via the United Nations and introduced a resolution calling for a ceasefire and desists from the use of force by all UN members. This resolution was passed by a majority of 64 to five votes, Russia voting with the US (Dumbrell, 2001). Britain on the other hand was severely criticised from all around the world instigated by the Americans. Apart from publicly criticising Britain and giving her a cold shoulder, Rachman (2001) highlights that the Americans further used the diminishing value of the pound sterling as a weapon to evict Britain from Egypt. A run on the pound ensued under US pressure as foreign holders of the sterling began to back out their holdings. America attacked the fragile economy of Britain and prohibited the IMF to offer emergency loans to Britain until the invasion was called off.

The British Treasury envisaged an imminent financial collapse and on 7th November, Britain declared a ceasefire, stopped the operation and gave in to America demands. The French though furious were obliged to agree as their troops were under British authority, many of Britain’s illusions about the special relationship was destroyed and undermined by the Suez crisis of 1956.

This is not the first time the Anglo-American relationship was severely strained and certainly not the last; the Indo-China crisis and the difference of opinions over Formosa are some examples. In reference to the ‘special relationship’ in the Middle East, Ashton (1996:113) argues as to the reason why the Middle East proved to be ‘such a fertile ground for conflict between the two powers was simply that their interests here often failed to coincide’. Indeed, the US Cold War aims of containing the Soviet Union clashed with Britain’s tendency towards the Middle East in terms of the protection of its imperial interest. This difference in Anglo-American relations produced conflicts following the nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian oil company in 1951 by the Iranian Premier Mohammad Mossadeq.

The Anglo-American opposition further resurfaced in 1955 when Britain adhered to the Baghdad pact. Dulles, discussing the pact with Eisenhower asserted that “the British have taken it over and run it as an instrument of British policy – that has drawn down upon it a tremendous amount of criticism” (Foreign Relations of the United States, 1991).

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The Anglo-American dispute as a result of failure of interest to coincide was also apparent over the tension in the South-Eastern Arabia territory of Buraimi. Anthony Eden, in January 1957 the eve of his resignation as Prime Minister remarked “It may be that the United States attitude to us in the Middle East dates from our refusal to give up Buraimi” (Smith, 2008).

As highlighted by Petersen (2000), Hoover the Assistant secretary of State responded to the Anglo-American crack over Suez by stating that “this cleavage had gone a great deal deeper than people imagined. It had Started a long time ago even before Suez and as far back as the Buraimi incident” (Petersen, 2000:72). Petersen further argued that the Buraimi crisis “presented Anglo-American diplomats with a conflict of interest which … eventually contributed to the rupture of the Atlantic Alliance during the Suez crisis of 1956” (Petersen, 1992:72)

The British was hurt the most by the Suez crisis, which resulted in a break down in relations between Britain and America, a near crippling of the Pound sterling and in the resignation of Eden the conservative Prime Minister, as his health wrecked. According to Freiberger (1992), the crisis further exploded the lingering imperial pretensions of Britain and quickened the independence of its colonies e.g. Ghana and Nigeria. Britain learnt from the Suez crisis that it would never be able to take actions independently of America again as British politicians are contented to play second fiddle to America.

If there is a special relationship between Britain and America, then it is a one way street with Britain hanging on to the coat-tails of the United States. Suez showed the French that perfide Albion could not be relied on as Britain always places its “special” relationship with America above its European interests.


History shows that international relations vary with the strength and character of respective leaders and that applies to the relationship between the United States and Great Britain. In the aftermath of Suez, Britain’s position became somewhat untenable to act like a superpower, her position as a world power began to decline with the rise of America. The Suez crisis made it very clear to the US that it has to take more prominence in crisis of the Middle East.

One could easily wonder if the United States actively developed a strategy to replace Britain as a dominant power in the Middle East or if the US sacrificed its allies with the ambition of gaining total domination of the region.

However, there have been recent controversies regarding the existence of the special relationship. According to a recent report by the Commons foreign affairs committee, America’s relationship with Britain is not more special than its relationship with its other main allies, and the term ‘special relationship’ does not portray the ‘modern’ Anglo-American relationship. (Times online, 28th March 2010)

In this report, a committee of influential MP’s state that “Britain’s special relationship with the US—forged by Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt in the Second World War—no longer exists” (Times online, 28th March 2010). Does this mean that the relationship is dead? Relying on the traditional model of bilateral partnership will certainly doom this relationship to obscurity.

Strengthening Britain’s leadership within the EU and a renewed partnership within multilateral institutions are essential for a strong and vital special relationship in the 21st century. Burwell (2010) echoed that the fundamental element of the special relationship in the 21st century must be partnerships that surpass the bilateral UK-US relationships. The Anglo-American special relationship should work towards a partnership with multilateral institutions to take on global challenges through diplomacy and political influence.

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