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Foreign Policy

Britain: A Special U.S. Partner

Jun 27, 2023
  • Jade Wong

    Senior Fellow, Gordon & Leon Institute

Since Joe Biden became President of the United States in 2021, he has revitalized America’s alliances, with the outbreak of the Ukraine War further accelerating the process. America’s strategic relationships with Europe (including Germany) and the Indo-Pacific (including Japan) have notably improved. However, the relationship between the U.S. and Britain, which have historical bonds, remains special. 

Signals of strength 

The first signal was in June 2021, when Biden chose Britain — the current rotating chair of the G7 — for his first foreign visit after taking office. Having completed the Brexit process the previous year, Britain pushed the G7 to issue a statement advocating a resilient and rules-based open international order and invited Australia, India, the Republic of Korea and the European Union to sign the 2021 Open Societies Statement.

Before the G7 summit, the U.S. and the UK signed the New Atlantic Charter, mimicking in name, format and content the Atlantic Charter signed by the two nations 80 years earlier in opposition to fascism. This shows the importance of highlighting democratic values to the world.

The second signal — the clearest yet — emerged three months later. The AUKUS defense cooperation alliance was established at lightning speed between the U.S., UK and Australia. This alliance enables the sharing of nuclear submarine technology, making it the vanguard of America’s global strategic layout, while establishing the UK as a major player in the Indo-Pacific.

Leslie Vinjamuri, director of the U.S. and the Americas Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, said, “Any concerns that Germany and Europe might replace the UK have been temporarily alleviated.”

The third signal was more recent: In early June, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visited the United States and with Biden signed the Atlantic Declaration: A Framework for a Twenty-First Century U.S.-UK Economic Partnership. This declaration serves as a complementary addition to the New Atlantic Charter — an alternative to the U.S.-UK free trade agreement that was sought but not obtained after Brexit. It could also be seen as an imitation of the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council (TTC).

Special aspects 

Just before Sunak’s visit to America, the U.S. and the EU had just completed the fourth round of TTC negotiations (May 30-31). Comparing these negotiations with the Atlantic Declaration offers insight into what distinguishes the special relationship between the U.S. and the UK.

One key factor is that, because of AUKUS, the UK is inevitably tied to the United States in terms of investment and control of cutting-edge technology. The U.S. has been advocating for export controls and investment screening by its allies — although it has received a limited response. But the UK has shown more enthusiasm than the EU.

Another important aspect is that the U.S. and the UK do not hesitate to target third parties. Since the TTC negotiations began in September 2021, the EU has been avoiding the impression of targeting China. In contrast, the Atlantic Declaration explicitly states that “technology, economics, and national security are more deeply intertwined than ever before,” highlighting the challenges from some “authoritarian states,” and pointing out the “indivisibility of security” in the Euro-Atlantic, Indo-Pacific and other regions.

Still another factor is that U.S.-UK economic integration is easier than U.S.-EU integration. The TTC statement made no reference to the “tricky issues” in U.S.-EU economic and trade relations, such as a “privacy shield” and “carbon tariffs,” which underscores the differences between the U.S. and EU regarding green subsidies and microchip subsidies.

The Atlantic Declaration underscores the potential for integrated American and British industrial chains. The U.S. plans to list the UK as a “domestic source” in Title III of the Defense Production Act. Further, the United States has appointed Britain as the “lead negotiator” in governing regulations for artificial intelligence and has committed to sending high-level officials to attend the world’s first AI summit, sponsored by the UK, this fall. All of these factors are what Sunak regarded as his top priorities during the visit. 

Why is it special? 

Before his meeting with Sunak, Biden appears to have offered two underlying reasons for reviving the special relationship between the U.S. and the UK. The first, he said, is that Prime Minister Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt met here a little over 70 years ago “and they asserted that the strength of the partnership between Great Britain and the United States was the strength of the free world.”

He went on to highlight the present geopolitical and ideological conflicts around the globe. The second is that “the global economy is undergoing the greatest transformation that has occurred since the industrial revolution” — underscoring the current changes in economic conditions.

Brexit played a significant role in pushing the UK closer to the United States — geographically, as an island nation; psychologically, as a former empire; and economically, as a major financial hub. The UK naturally adopted “Global Britain” as its new position. As a result, the UK supports a “free and open” world order and has the capacity to intervene in Indo-Pacific affairs.

Moreover, the UK is expected to benefit from its special relationship with the U.S. It anticipates receiving dividends from its expertise in high-end technology, access to capital and markets and the opportunity to play a role in shaping the discussion about the emerging global order. In theory, the UK’s ability to navigate between major blocs and camps should enable it to leverage its strengths. The UK has formed a deep bond with the United States, likely due to the belief that the conflict is intense and the outcomes are clear.

The United States values the UK’s global “empire” vision, as well as its compatible political model, its similar ideas and its capacity to manipulate global multilateral discourse.

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