Every four years, the world watches as Americans decide who will occupy the most powerful office on Earth. Nowhere is this truer than in the United Kingdom, a country that so often talks of its “special relationship” with the United States, a reference to the term coined by Winston Churchill in 1946.
And never has this been truer than in 2020. In the coming years, the UK will dramatically reshape its position in the world, as the Brexit transition period expires on December 31 and the country severs its final ties with the European Union.
It stands to reason that the UK would turn to its most important single ally for support during this period; the presidential term of whoever wins on November 3 expires at roughly the same time Britons are expected to next go to the polls in 2024.
This means that either Donald Trump or Joe Biden will play a big part in influencing the UK’s Brexit policy before the end of the year. They will likely do the same for all British foreign policy after their inauguration.
When Churchill used the words “special relationship” he did so on American soil alongside his friend, President Harry Truman. World War II ended the previous year, but Europe was still extremely fragile. An aggressive Soviet Russia was making clear its intentions to increase control in Central and Eastern Europe, while promoting alternative political ideologies in the Far East. And while the Nazis had been defeated, many fascist groups and parties remained powerful across the continent.
The solution? “Neither the sure prevention of war, nor the continuous rise of world organization will be gained without what I have called the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples. This means a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States,” said Churchill. Such an alliance involved, he explained, the “continuance of the intimate relationship between our military advisers, leading to common study of potential dangers,” as well as “the interchange of officers and cadets at technical colleges.”
Sure enough, the two nations have since cooperated on a wide range of security, economic, cultural and diplomatic matters. During the Cold War, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan stood shoulder to shoulder in opposition of the Soviet Union, celebrating free-market capitalism and Western democracy. Perhaps the strongest sign of their partnership was that Thatcher was the only foreign leader to speak at Reagan’s funeral in 2004.
After the September 2001 attacks, Tony Blair was by far the staunchest international supporter of President George W. Bush and one of the few European leaders to follow America into Iraq.
Beyond political leaders, the two countries together formed the foundations of NATO and the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network, institutions that have stood the test of time, whoever happens to be in charge of either government.
“There’s no doubt Blair and Bush had a partnership that was unrivaled during the Iraq war. That same is true for Thatcher and Reagan during the Cold War,” says Malcom Rifkind, a former British foreign secretary. And even though “it doesn’t happen with every prime minister and every president,” Rifkind acknowledges, “the intimate institutional relationship on security and a broad range of international issues has stuck.”
However, the question many British politicians are wondering is, outside of security, how much can they rely on the US to protect the UK’s interests in a post-Brexit world? In other words, how special is the relationship really?
Of particular interest is the current row over Johnson’s plan to override part of the Brexit deal he signed with the European Union, called the Northern Ireland Protocol. Critics say Johnson’s plan risks a hard border on the island of Ireland — between Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state — and breaks the 1998 Good Friday Agreement brokered by then-US President Bill Clinton. That deal brought an end to decades of sectarian violence and found a way for both Unionists and Republicans to work together in governing Northern Ireland.