This is a favourite (or favorite term) used mainly by British social commentators and diplomats to describe what they like to see as special Anglo-American relations. The term reflects language ties as well as cultural ones; shared values and interests. There is no truth in it: it is nothing but a very large dose of wishful thinking on the part of wistful British statesmen. There is an astonishing lack of realism in this romantic idea of a ‘special relationship’ between the United States and Britain.
At the end of the nineteenth century and up to the beginning of the Great War in 1914, Americans regarded Great Britain’s astonishing Empire (more than a sixth of the world’s land surface) with jealousy. Many US presidents wondered openly how they could wrest it away from the Limeys, and perhaps form their own, even bigger Empire. A wonderful opportunity arose when Europe caught fire following the killing of the Austrian arch-duke and his wife in Sarajevo. War broke out in Europe in 1914, but the enormous might and weight of the States did not enter it until 1917, after three years of slaughter, when it was calculated that Britain, France and indeed Germany were so exhausted physically and economically that they could do no more. This was the moment when Uncle Sam got there, and her commanders reversed the maps to their advantage. It was indeed a ‘special relationship’. The pathetic Brits breathed a sigh of relief; they lost on average one man (or boy fresh from the classroom) from every family in the most savage and futile war that has ever been fought. ‘The Yanks are Here!’ they sang, having little or no idea of the harshness of all international relations.
Then came the end of the war, naturally, as the Yanks had arrived; the French behaved very badly at the Treaty of Versailles, trying to force Germany to pay for the entire war though she was bankrupt and could not possibly pay. Bankruptcy led to poverty and massive inflation (a loaf of bread worth one million Marks), and Adolf Hitler. Twenty-one years after the end of the Great War the Second World War erupted, and guess what happened! The United States again waited from September 1939 until December 1941 (when Pearl Harbor decreed that a change of mind was necessary) before throwing aside the Monroe Doctrine of Non-Intervention and sending in the 7th Cavalry.
Winston Churchill was deluding himself and Britain when he dreamed of a bilateral and enduring partnership. De Gaulle himself warned him this would not happen. At the end of the War Roosevelt (actually dying) got a few things he wanted, Stalin got everything he wanted and more, and Churchill (very old and tired) was there to maintain the illusion. The Allies knocked the Germans’ heads together, and divided their country into four zones and Berlin into four sectors.
During the Cold War with Soviet Russia that lasted at least until the end of the Berlin Wall (1989) closer political and military connections were established between Britain and the US, for example sharing the technology of nuclear weaponry. American film and industrial companies set up large facilities in Britain. Macmillan had an American mother just as Winston had. Most everything had to be hunky-dory, until Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal for Egypt, and Britain, France, and most importantly Israel, objected. America showed her true strength and slapped Europe’s hand, you naughty boys!
Only America could interfere elsewhere, as they did in Korea (doubtful success), and Vietnam (defeat). But they were able to show what they really thought of the special relationship by invading the island of Grenada, which happened to be a British Protectorate, but never mind.
In reality, developing a special relationship with the USA was a sensible strategy for many countries, though that relationship was always infinitely more important to them than to the USA, which by the late twentieth century had intimate political and economic ties with such places as Canada (the second largest country on this planet), Israel, Mexico, Japan and the Republic of Ireland. A lot of the financing for the Irish Republic Army came from deep Irish/American pockets, and no US Government minded.
When Britain applied for membership of what was then called The Common Market, the United States applauded, because the UK was likely to moderate her protectionist and anti-American views in favour of some vaguely Atlanticist and starry vision of Europe’s future.
Such terrible incidents as the murder of President Kennedy and the destruction of the Twin Towers helped to consolidate the idea of a special relationship, because the British were genuinely horrified and wished to show it, while France and Germany could hardly give a tanker’s cuss – which showed that the Anglo-American relationship was still worth it. But only when clearly seen mutual interests coincide. If not, the ‘relationship’ is nothing but a mirage.