The Special Relationship Isn’t Over

Following Parliament’s vote against military action in Syria, many declared the Special Relationship fatally wounded.  Historical analysis of the special relationship, however, suggests otherwise.  Not only has Britain abandoned us before (Vietnam and Yom Kippur War), but America has also left Britain in her time of need (Falkland Islands).  Further analysis of recently declassified documents nuances the point: despite publicly remaining neutral, each country engaged in extensive covert means to aid the other’s military and intelligence apparatuses.  This suggests that despite the recent British vote, they will still find ways to support strikes against Syria if they happen.

Cameron Obama

UK Prime Minister David Cameron storms into parliament outraged over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s large-scale use of chemical weapons against rebels in the suburbs of Damascus. Indeed, much of the Western world is up in arms over this flagrant violation of international norms and human rights: you can hear the war drums beating.

That was last month.

But many were surprised when the British House of Commons stepped firmly on the breaks: senior Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick said he was “opposed to military intervention in Syria, full stop.”[1]

Another MP, Sir Menzies Campbell, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, underscored the significance of the vote, “saying that he could not remember a government defeat on such a major foreign policy issue.”[2]

In the wake of this major setback, many have questioned the durability of Britain and America’s “Special Relationship.” Labour Party and opposition leader Ed Milliband suggested that from now on, Britain’s foreign policy would be much more self-interested: “sometimes that will mean agreeing with what America is doing and the way it’s going about things and sometimes it will mean doing things in a different way.”[3] In an interview with BBC Newsnight, Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond said the vote “is certainly going to place some strain on the special relationship.”[4] Jonathan Eyal of the Royal United Services Institute, went even further, claiming that Parliament’s rejection “has fatally hit the special relationship.”

Over on this side of the pond, similar doubts have been raised. After the British vote, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to the American people and presented the case for attacking Assad. In it, he slighted the UK by praising the French as America’s “oldest ally” and making absolutely no reference to England whatsoever. In an Op-Ed for the New York Times entitled “A Much Less Special Relationship,” Roger Cohen wrote that the vote “represents a bleak turning point” in the history of trans-Atlantic cooperation.

No, Mr. Cohen, it doesn’t. An examination of the Special Relationship since its inception suggests otherwise. Not only has the UK done this before, but Washington has also abandoned London in her time of need.

Before we get into the specific case studies, we should agree on a few parameters. First of all, this analysis is looking exclusively at the post-WWII era, when either the US or UK failed to wholeheartedly support the other in military action. Secondly, certain conflicts will rightly be excluded. For example, when it comes to the western hemisphere, America has set a long and strong precedent of “going it alone,” dating back to the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. Therefore, interventions in the Dominican Republic (1965), Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), Haiti (1994), and the like, will be ignored.

This saga begins in March of 1946. Speaking to Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, Winston Churchill first coined the term “Special Relationship”. After having worked together so extensively in the world wars, Churchill sought not only to summarize the extent to which America and Britain were jointly aligned in the past, he also expressed hope that this Special Relationship would continue into the future and promote peace throughout the world.[5]

But that pacifist overture quickly gave way to the impetus for partnering up in the first place: war.

FDR Churchill

The first test of the Special Relationship was Korea. Barely five years removed from WWII, Britain was undoubtedly war-fatigued. But as a permanent member of the newly minted UN Security Council, Britain supported America’s resolution for police action against aggression from North Korea. When then-PM Clement Atlee was urged that Korea was too far away to be of immediate concern, he replied, “Distant, yes, but nonetheless an obligation.”[6] Britain sent more than 40 ships and over 100 Army units into the fray,[7] amounting to a commitment of almost 100,000 troops.[8] By the war’s end in 1953, the UK lost over 1,000 soldiers and another thousand were captured as prisoners of war.

So when America came calling again for support in the Vietnam War, Britain balked. In March 1966, PM Harold Wilson was asked by Parliament about the existence of any plans to militarily support the US in Vietnam. He was resolute: “No, there are no such plans…we have of course plans for help with various nonmilitary aid of various kinds. But I have made it very clear, in Washington, that for the various reasons we have given, there is no question of our sending troops to Vietnam.”[9]

Speaking with a BBC interviewer in March 2010, then-defense secretary Dennis Healey remembered his strong aversion to joining the US: “It was a disastrous war. The Americans were trying to win it by bombing. In bombing, you make ten enemies for every enemy you kill.”[10]

Sound familiar? The only military option currently being discussed in Washington is a “limited strike” using some combination of Tomahawk missiles, submarines, and B2 bombers. And those lobbying against the strike highlight the high likelihood of collateral damage.

There is yet another similarity with the current lack of British support for American strikes against Syria. After Parliament voted no on military action, Mr. Cameron was quick to rebound and save as much face as he could for his cause, promising to increase the UK’s humanitarian aid, which already stands at nearly £350 million.[11] British intelligence authorities went even further. They quickly noted that the vote was only about military action—not intelligence sharing—and remained committed to sharing intelligence to support US strikes.[12]

This very nearly mirrors British behind-the-scenes support for America in Vietnam. As PM Wilson alluded to in the quote above, the UK did assist America’s effort against the Vietcong. It was widely known that Australia and New Zealand, two Commonwealth member states, supported America with 60,000[13] and 3,000 troops,[14] respectively.[15] A 1965 British Foreign Office report stated that “Britain should…give moral support to our major ally.”[16] In addition to providing Special Forces instructors, [17] the UK intelligence apparatus assisted America’s military efforts, even in ways that they themselves acknowledged (in classified, internal documents released after-the-fact) ran counter to British public and Parliamentary opinion. For example, the British stations in Hanoi and Hong Kong consistently gathered and shared intelligence reports with American intelligence stations in the region.[18] Furthermore, the British military attaché to Saigon oversaw several covert plans to aid the Americans by sending personnel who were granted temporary civilian status, including undercover counter-insurgency experts, Royal Military Police, ammunition technicians, Royal Army Ordnance Corps, and Royal Engineers.[19] Other declassified documents show rather extensive covert cooperation with the Royal Air Force pilots, who during missions were ordered to “replace their RAF shoulder titles with RAAF [Royal Australian Air Force] ones.”[20]

It would appear, then, that the lion’s share of the strain on the Special Relationship during the Vietnam War was more political than anything else. To be sure, intelligence sharing and covert action were no substitute for the full might of British military commitment. But absent that, in the face of public and Parliamentary opposition, Her Majesty’s Government still found secret ways to aid America’s fight to contain communism in South East Asia.

Additional examination of the past few decades demonstrates clearly that Vietnam wasn’t the only instance of tension in the Special Relationship. In fact, the next such example is perhaps even more relevant. The 1973 Yom Kippur War (aka October War) put Great Britain in an even bigger bind: mixing geopolitics, historical alliances, and energy security. At the time when Egypt and Syria sprang a surprise attack on Israel, British coal miners had already been striking for over a year.[21] So the UK’s energy sector was already weak when OPEC nations complimented Syria and Egypt’s military attack with economic measures, punishing the West’s support of Israel with high gas prices. While America would not be deterred, Britain and the rest of Europe buckled under the pressure. Then-MP James Prior, a confidant of then-PM Edward Heath, explained that Britain’s lack of support was due to “Arab oil,” as well as “economic and commercial interests in Arab states.”[22] And unlike Britain’s nonintervention in Vietnam, when public opinion was anti-war, this hands off approach to the Yom Kippur War was in fact politically risky, as a “large majority of British public were sympathetic to Israel,” added Prior.[23] Still, America was unsympathetic, infuriating many in Britain when President Nixon announced DEFCON 3 readiness[24] without consulting his UK counterparts.[25]

In the 1980s, it was America’s turn to give a cold shoulder when Britain went to war. In 1982, Argentina’s military dictatorship invaded the Falkland Islands, which were still under UK sovereignty. Rather than immediately backing Britain’s right to the Islands, then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig embarked on several rounds of shuttle diplomacy to peacefully mediate the conflict. In documents from the National Security Council meetings surrounding the Falklands crisis, only just unclassified last year, it is clear that Secretary Haig was eager to side against the British: “Our proposals, in fact, are a camouflaged transfer of sovereignty [to Argentina].”[26] In a 2007 radio interview, then-Ambassador to the UN, Jeane Kirkpatrick—who also opposed supporting the British—shed light on their thinking, explaining that “there were fears that the USSR was dominating Latin America and a failure on the part of the US to support the Argentineans would encourage Latin American countries to seek closer relations with the Soviets.”[27] Ambassador Kirkpatrick went so far as to attend a dinner hosted by the Argentinean embassy shortly after the Falklands invasion, which then-British Ambassador Nicholas Henderson responded was akin to his dining at the Iranian embassy during the 1979 hostage crisis.[28]

But the Special Relationship weathered this storm, too. Despite being officially “neutral” in the conflict, America provided much behind-the-scenes support to PM Margaret Thatcher’s government. In 2012, former US Secretary of the Navy John Lehman revealed that President Reagan had instructed him to “Give Maggie everything she needs to get on with it.”[29] According to Mr. Lehman, Secretary Haig was kept entirely out of the loop of these plans, which included potentially lending the British the USS Iwo Jima in the event that HMS Invincible or Hermes were struck and unable to complete their missions.[30] The US also provided other forms of military and intelligence aid while publically and officially remaining neutral throughout the entire conflict.[31] Even to this day, there remains international controversy around Argentina’s claims to the Islands, and America’s position is officially neutral but unofficially pro-British.[32], [33]

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In sum, the current Syrian Civil War isn’t the first time Britain and America have disagreed over military action. Indeed, it won’t be the last. But the Special Relationship is stronger than individual crises of the day. And there are certainly many more instances of robust cooperation than there are examples where one of us has had to fight alone.[34] Matthew Barzon, newly appointed US Ambassador to the UK, knows this, writing last week in an Op-Ed to The Observer:

“[If we] look at the Syria effort beyond the authorisation question…the special relationship also looks as vital as ever. On the diplomatic front, both the US and Britain have been strong, consistent voices throughout the crisis, condemning the appalling violence and Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. The UK has been especially valuable in building support among EU countries and in aggressively pursuing tough sanctions to deny funding and weaponry to the Assad regime. We are also working together on humanitarian issues, acting in concert to address other serious human rights concerns around the conflict, including the refugee crisis. And we are co-ordinating our efforts through international organisations to get relief supplies, such as food, shelter and medicines, to the Syrian people.

So the vote in parliament has not changed the fundamental strength of our essential relationship. In fact, the debate – impressive as it was in its quality – is a reminder of how pivotal to international security our two countries remain. We are both engaged in serious arguments about issues of international peace and security because we are among only a handful of countries that have the capability to offer a potent response.”[35]

Ambassador Barzon goes to argue that, “Debate and disagreement have always been features of the relationship,” and yet, “when there are differences of opinion these do not damage or undermine the inherent strength of our partnership.” [36]

And if history is any indicator, one can reasonably expect that if and when the US does strike the Syrian regime, the British will be there behind-the-scenes, providing intelligence and perhaps even covert forms of support.


[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[15] It is interesting to note another parallel between Syria and Vietnam. In 1966, after Australian PM gave a speech increasing Australia’s troop commitment to the war in Vietnam, several in the US military publically mentioned that Australia “was now the US’s closest ally.” Just like Secretary Kerry’s comments about France, these remarks offended many in Great Britain.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] There are five levels of DEFCON (Defense Condition). DEFCON 3 ups the ante considerably, by raising all forces, including nuclear forces, into a state of “high readiness.”

[28] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[33] Indeed, President Obama and others have repeated that America is officially “neutral,” which still prompts cries of betrayal in Britain.  See: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/nilegardiner/100162100/the-obama-administration-knifes-britain-yet-again-over-the-falklands/.

[34] Examples of military cooperation after Korea include repelling the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979), the Gulf War (1980), Bosnia and Herzegovina bombings (1995), Kosovo bombings (1999), the post-9/11 interventions in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003), and the no-fly zone enforced over Libya (2011).

[36] Ibid.