What is the 'Special Relationship' Between the UK and the US, and Does it Still Exist?
Updated: Dec 21, 2021
In his “Iron Curtain” speech in 1946, then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the US-UK relationship “special”. The two nations share a cultural, political, and commercial bond that created the basis for coining the term. The relationship under Trump’s presidency, however, was shaken due to his position on trade and diplomacy. So, what is this “special relationship”, does it still exist, and do the two nations have other, more important alliances?
This guide will help answer those questions.
The 'special relationship'
After overcoming the horrific events of World War II, Winston Churchill was the first to use the term “special relationship”. However, the two countries first established diplomatic relations back in 1785 after the American Revolutionary War that ended in 1783. Although the US had declared its independence in 1776, Great Britain didn’t recognize it until 1783. The United States broke diplomatic relations with the UK during the 1812 war, but soon established relations again in 1815.
The relationship was strengthened by an alliance during the two World Wars, in the Korean conflict, in the Persian Gulf War, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan. In addition, both countries are part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The alliance is further strengthened by a shared language, ideals, and democratic practices.
The US-UK yearly economic trade is estimated to be over $260 billion in goods and services. There are more than 1.2 million Americans working for UK companies in the US, and over 1.5 million Britons working in US firms. The most notable US exports to the UK include aircraft, machinery, financial and travel services, and agricultural products.
Regarding Northern Ireland, the US prioritises continuing support of the peace process and developed political institutions in the region. In 1986, the International Fund for Ireland (IFI) was created to provide funding for projects that generate economic opportunities and cross-community engagements in both Northern Ireland and border counties of Ireland. Since its creation, the US has contributed over $543 million to the IFI.
Does the 'special relationship' still exist?
Trump’s inauguration as the 45th president of the United States created some “awkwardness” in the US-UK relationship. During his term, Donald Trump made numerous controversial statements about women, immigrants, Mexicans, and Muslims. In 2017, 1.8 million Britons signed a petition protesting against the planned visit of the President to the UK. In early 2018, Donald Trump was supposed to visit London, however, the visit was cancelled after growing fears of protests.
In July 2018, London Mayor Sadiq Khan gave permission to allow a 20-foot-tall balloon depicting Trump as a baby to fly over London. This incident was called “disgusting” by Digby Jones, former director-general of the Confederation of British Industry. This comment was backed by the fact that Donald Trump was considered the “biggest trading partner”, and that he was “democratically elected”.
Under the Biden administration, things could look different. Prime Minister Boris Johnson congratulated Joe Biden over the phone saying “It was an excellent conversation that really flowed over all the things that have traditionally united the UK and the US.” He highlighted his readiness to uphold their shared values regarding world democracy, human rights, free trade, NATO, and their joint security. However, Brexit has brought some scepticism regarding the future of the special relationship.
Joe Biden did not support Brexit when he was the Vice President during the Obama administration. In September of 2020, Joe Biden tweeted “Any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the [Good Friday] Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period”. This marked the first statement in the series of discouraging comments linking potential effects of Brexit to future trade deals. In the following months, Joe Biden further expressed his determination to uphold the Good Friday Agreement, saying he did not want a “guarded border”. In addition, the US-UK trade deal was not prioritised in the “first 100 days” in the White House. The first 100 days prioritised domestic issues instead.
Do the UK and the US have other, more important allies now?
When Donald Trump was president, he called NATO “obsolete”, withdrew the US from the Iran nuclear deal, and withdrew the US from the Paris Climate Accord. By contrast, Joe Biden described NATO as “critical”, indicated the US would rejoin the UK and other countries in the Iran nuclear deal if Iran was under “strict compliance”, and promised to return the US to the climate agreement.
Under Barack Obama’s presidency, the US had close ties with Germany that were highlighted by the close relationship between Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkel. Therefore, we could see Joe Biden continue and develop this relationship with Germany. For now, there are no clear indications that tell us either the US or UK is looking for other, closer allies, so only time will tell what the future of this relationship will look like.
Boris Johnson said: "There is far more that unites the government of this country and governments in Washington at any stage than divides us." However, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said there will be different "contours to the opportunities and the risks" for the UK-US relationship. It has been suggested that Democrats will prioritise relationships with other European countries such as Belgium, but this is purely speculation.
For years the UK and the US have had a close and special relationship and there is nothing concrete that suggests this relationship will deteriorate in the future.
For more articles and resources on issues overseas, head to our dedicated Foreign Affairs section.