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How did UK and US relations change after the election of Obama?
In his 1946 Iron Curtain speech, Winston Churchill (2015, n. pag.) stated that “[n]either the sure prevention of war, nor the continuous rise of world organisation will be gained without what I have called the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples. This means a special relationship between the [UK] and the United States.” The end of World War II did indeed mark the start of a special relationship between the two nations and it has been characterised by political, diplomatic, economic and military relations as well as shared values and strategic objectives in the intervening years (Wallace & Phillips, 2009). However, there has been significant coverage and analysis of the special relationship since the 2008 election of Barack Obama as US President, with many political commentators, academics and journalists alike speculating as to how relevant such a relationship may now be as a result of changing strategy on the part of both nations. This essay will establish the state of the special relationship between the UK and the United States prior to the election of Barack Obama before exploring the political, economic and social changes that occurred in the wake of his inauguration. This will be done with a view to concluding that 2008 was a watershed for the special relationship as a result of changing US and UK priorities, transitional leadership and the global financial crisis. However, despite the evolution of the special relationship as a result of a shifting global political and economic climate, it is still a key strategic alliance that is relevant to the security of both states and the international community as a whole today.
Prior to 2008, the special relationship between the UK and US had the purpose of forming close cooperation between the two in terms of nuclear weapons technology, economic activity, trade and military planning and execution, amongst other areas (Wither, 2006). In the immediate aftermath of World War II, it forged a mutual recovery and support in the rebuilding of states that had been damaged by the war with the added point of America becoming the global leader (Arnold, 2014; Friedman, 2007). Lee (2010) argues that the UK was the weaker partner throughout the second half of the 20th century was a result of the fact that the defence cooperation between the two was dominated by the US, who had larger strategic forces and often demanded UK cooperation in initiatives during the Cold War. Wright (2002) supplements this perspective and notes that this imbalance persisted into the 21st century as a result of the UK’s backing of George W. Bush’s actions in the wake of 9/11 in exchange for maintaining British influence internationally. The British support for US foreign and security policy in the aftermath of 9/11, particularly the 2003 invasion of Iraq, suggested that the special relationship remained strong despite the fact that it did not have popular support in Britain and raised significant questions as to whether it was in the best interests of the UK to follow American international strategy (Dumbrell, 2009). However, regardless of the controversy that surrounded the actions of both nations, there can be little doubt that there were strong political, strategic and military links in place prior to the election of Obama in 2008.
Following Obama’s election in 2008, the special relationship has been called into question as a direct result of the ideological disparities between the new President and his predecessor. Obama’s diplomatic objectives and strategic goals departed significantly from the approach taken towards alliances and security by George W. Bush. For example, Dumbrell (2009) notes that Obama had an ambivalence towards the protectionist strategy that had previously been employed and those applying pressure on the president to continue to pursue it as well as committing to diplomacy with other European states to encourage engagement in Afghanistan. As such, the foundation of the special relationship had become distorted as a direct result of the fact that Obama did not wish to prioritise relations with Britain in order to secure an ally in the international community based on a traditional mutual need. Indeed, both Gordon Brown and Barack Obama sought to address global issues like climate change (Dumbrell, 2013) and the restructuring of international institutions to create an effective and efficient global society (Dumbrell, 2008). These issues were not prioritised on Bush’s agenda and the cooperation between the US and UK on them provides evidence of a shift in focus. However, the fact that both pledged to cooperate on matters of international rather than domestic importance does underscore the fact that diplomatic and political relations were still in place despite Obama’s determination to redefine US foreign policy. As such, the special relationship did change in the field of diplomacy but remained resolutely in place.
In highlighting Obama’s tentative departure from the traditional American protectionist stance, Dumbrell (2009) also drew attention to the fact that Obama sought to build military alliances to strengthen his position in Afghanistan and this also impacted upon that particular aspect of the special relationship. For example, Self (2010) states that Obama exerted pressure on the British government into committing more troops to the ongoing war in Afghanistan. This was done via coercive rhetoric in a bid to overcome policy differences that were geared towards protecting the British national interest in a time of economic crisis. As such, there was significant conflict in the area of military cooperation because of the circumstances that had changed the priorities of both nations. The military element of the special relationship also evolved after the inauguration of Obama in other ways that were directly linked to the shift in American strategic priorities (Wither, 2006). For example, Wither (2006, p. 47) argues that:
…the longstanding defence partnership is threatened by a number of factors, including interoperability problems, the UK’s national and defence spending priorities, the likely impact of a decision to replace Trident and the decline in the importance of the transatlantic strategic partnership in NATO.
This identifies several areas where US priorities were distinctly different to those of the UK and therefore marks a major disjunction between the policies of both. This had not existed before as the UK had actively supported the US in its global endeavours, often without question (Dumbrell, 2009). There can be no doubt that the UK was not able to do so to the same extent after 2008. British military capabilities were significantly reduced in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, which raised significant questions about the UK’s ability to contribute to global security as well as compromising any future usefulness in collaborative overseas operations (Wither, 2006). This was also paired with a reluctance to aid Obama via bilateral agreements to take action overseas, with a prime example being parliament’s rejection of Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposal to ally with Obama and commit to air strikes in Syria in 2013 and the resultant strained relationship between the two leaders (Rothkopf, 2014). As a consequence, the special relationship had fundamentally changed in numerous ways based upon the reluctance of the UK to tow the American line and the frustration that manifested in the military relationship between the two, at least on a governmental level if not on the ground where cooperation did occur.
Although cooperation may not have been as forthcoming in a military context as it had been prior to 2008, there are areas of policy and the special relationship in which new forms of cooperation flourished. For example, according to Wallace and Phillips (2009, p, 263), the “…US-UK special relationship today has a political and ideological superstructure and an embedded military and intelligence substructure.” This suggests that there is active cooperation between the two in the intelligence sphere and that is reinforced by the creation of a National Security Strategy Board, which was designed to provide a clear line of communication between officials in the UK and the US to discuss security and strategy as and when necessary (Watt, 2011). In addition, there are ongoing intelligence operations that require cooperation between the two, most notably the running of CIA networks within British communities in conjunction with MI5 in order to prevent terrorist attacks (Svendson, 2010). In effect, stronger links have developed in this particular area of the relationship and illuminate how it has changed based upon need.
The economic aspect of the special relationship also demands scrutiny. Despite the global economic crisis that damaged both the US and UK economies significantly there is extensive economic activity that ties them together, including trade and investment that renders each the largest investor in the other (Foreign Affairs Committee, 2010). This irrevocably bound the nations together and provided a point of cooperation that was seemingly unaffected by global goals as it benefitted both nations. Indeed, Stacey et al (2015, n. pag.) note that Obama perceived the US and UK economies as the two that were “standing out at a time when a lot of other countries are having problems” at the beginning of 2015, thus ostensibly reaffirming the special relationship publically. The implication here is that the strength of both economies reinforced the relationship as a result of the ongoing benefits that both nations were able to reap from the situation. It should be noted that there were points of disagreement, such as the fact that Obama sought to insert clauses into World Trade Organisation UK stimulus packages that were designed to protect American industry and jobs. However, these did not actively impact upon the economic support or cooperation that one provided the other. In effect, this particular area of the special relationship changed very little despite the global economic climate and the uncertainty it introduced impacting upon other areas.
However, despite the changes to the special relationship illustrated above, there are certain elements of it that have altered little since 2008. For example, despite the fact that Obama has favoured a partnership with the collective of European states rather than one nation, the UK is still the weaker partner in the relationship: “…relief that [Obama’s] first phone call to a European leader was to Gordon Brown, indicates how dependent Britain’s claim to global status is on Washington’s approval” (Wallace & Phillips, 2009, p. 283). Although the UK is no longer a bridge to Europe as a result of Obama’s desire to establish relationships with the European Union and its individual states (Cameron, 2007), it still maintains the closest relationship of all European states to the US and continues to be its closest ally. This is important in determining how far the special relationship had changed and denotes the presence of common ground that has endured from the end of World War II and is still in place.
In conclusion, the analysis in this essay points to the special relationship between the UK and United States undergoing a fundamental change in the wake of the election of President Barack Obama in 2008. Although the channels of communication remained open and were consolidated as a result of cooperation in the field of intelligence and via the new National Security Strategy Board, the strategic goals of both nations were undoubtedly impacted by economic crisis, involvement on a changing international stage and the need to develop enhanced relations with other European nations. There is also evidence of friction between the two nations and this manifests in an unwillingness to support the other unless initiatives and policies were also in the national interest. These points outline how the special relationship changed on an ideological and a practical level. However, the economic element of the special relationship remained intact, in spite of the attempts by the US government to insert clauses into stimulus agreements to aid the American economy, and this underlined the remaining importance of each power to the other. As such, the analysis reinforces the idea that 2008 was a watershed for the US-UK special relationship as a result of the impact that changing priorities, transitional leadership and the global financial crisis had on both nations. There has certainly been a need for the evolution of the special relationship as a result of a shifting global political and economic climate but the relations between the US and UK still facilitate the maintenance of a key strategic alliance that is relevant to the security of both states and responds to the demand for global leadership by the international community today.
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