An End to the Special Relationship?

A major consequence of the turmoil in Afghanistan today caused by the refusal of President Joe Biden to alter his unilateral timetable to exit Kabul, is that it increased the damage inflicted on allies and friends, and has led to the possible demise of the “special relationship” between the UK and the U.S., which projected power and influence in securing a cohesive Western approach in the world. In these circumstances, it is pertinent to ask. “Is the special relationship fact or fiction?” The term was coined by Winston Churchill in his “Iron Curtain” speech at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri on March 5, 1946, eager to maintain the relationship of close allies in World War II.  The concept was that the level of cooperation between the two countries in trade, commerce, military affairs, intelligence sharing, is unparalleled among world powers. 

The special relationship has always been uneven.  At times, relations between leaders of the two countries have appeared close:  Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan rode horses together and danced in the White House. and there appeared to be cordial rapport between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. But there were always American skeptics of the meaningfulness of the relationship, even before Churchill’s speech. Dean Acheson was caustic, “Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.” The two countries differed over issues, such as the Arab-Israeli war in 1973, the issue of a nuclear alert, and British policy in Northern Ireland.  President Barack Obama declared in April 2016 that the UK would be at the “back of the queue” in any U.S. trade deal if Brexit took place.

However, the relationship has been worsened by the U.S. unilateral action, the virtual exclusion by Biden of the UK. as well as other NATO members, from conversations and decisions over Afghanistan. The relationship seems to have reached a low point.

The “special relationship” has always been partly based on cordiality and warmth between the two leaders as well as on political factors.  Biden seemed to have little interest in what Boris Johnson thought, and refused for a day and a half to talk to him on the phone.

The operation in Afghanistan was technically a NATO operation including the UK, and all members of NATO have been affected by the dramatic consequences of the unilateral, if not isolationist, U.S. withdrawal. Realistically, the UK has realized it is a junior partner, at best a restraining force, of the U.S. British political leaders have been scathing over U.S, policy and actions. Former prime minister Tony Blair, who took Britain into Afghanistan in 2001, asserted that the abandonment of Afghanistan and its people is tragic, dangerous, and unnecessary. The world is now uncertain of where the West stands because it appears that the U.S. decision to withdraw and its execution was driven less by grand strategy than by political calculation.  A tangible demonstration is needed to show that the West is not in retreat.  One suggestion of the Boris Johnson government is that the UK work alongside Russia and China to exercise a moderating influence over the Taliban. Former Prime Minister Theresa May echoed this.  

Perhaps the most moving and passionate criticism of Biden was made by Conservative MP, Tom Tugendhat, chair of the British foreign affairs committee, a Catholic of Jewish ancestry and a former reservist intelligence officer. He called Biden shameful for blaming the Taliban victory on a cowardly Afghanistan military. In the House of Commons, he was pained to see the U.S. Commander in Chief call into question “the courage of men I fought with. Those who have never fought for the colors they fly should be careful about criticizing those who have.”

Biden has refused to extend the deadline for evacuations from Kabul beyond August 31, though Boris, as well as Macron and Merkel, want the airlifts to go on longer.

The humiliated Boris explained that he had urged Biden to extend the date of the U.S. withdrawal and would continue U.S .emergency airlifts as long as possible but Biden had refused and stood squarely behind his original decision.

At the virtual G7 meeting on August 24, 2021, Boris asserted that the UK will continue to conduct airlifts right up to the last moments while pleading with the Taliban to let people leave after August 31. Boris said after the meeting, that what was done at the G7 is that the leading Western powers agreed “not just a joint approach to dealing with the evacuation, but also a roadmap for the way in which we are going to engage with the Taliban.”

For Britain, the time when the UK could rely on a special relationship to project power and influence in a cohesive Western approach seems to have come to an end. Winston Churchill, who was so concerned for Atlantic solidarity, must be saddened. 

Image: Public Domain

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