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Foreign Policy

How Special is the US-UK Relationship?

May 11 , 2016
  • Sun Chenghao

    Assistant Research Fellow, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

In March, when interviewed by The Atlantic, US President Obama criticized Prime Minister Cameron, his counterpart in UK, for becoming “distracted by a range of other things” as Libya descended into a “mess”. The blunt rhetoric was widely reported as a serious blow to the so-called special relationship. But a month later, on April 22, Obama visited the UK when he only has several months left in office in a time critical to UK’s future.

The major task for Obama’s visit this time was to persuade the UK not to leave the EU. On April 22, he wrote an article on The Telegraph website titled As your friend, let me say that the EU makes Britain even greater. In joint press conference with Cameron on that day, Obama aired the same opinion. The logic is that a stronger UK in EU will best serve the interest of the special relationship and it is the responsibility of US, a true and special friend, to give British voters some suggestions. People might even argue Obama is in fact intervening in UK’s EU referendum.

However, in the past few years, the US-UK special relationship is clearly not as vigorous as before. Despite the fact that there is no deep-running division, their close coordination is rarely seen. The UK Parliament’s rejection of military intervention in Syria in 2013 has left the US looking for other possible allies. The UK becoming the first Western country in 2015 to join the AIIB reportedly made the US furious. UK’s defense cut has also resulted in hardline criticism across the Atlantic. All these signs have contributed to the pessimistic judgment on the future of the US-UK special relationship.

The special relationship is not in its best shape. The domestic and foreign policy of the two countries have witnessed great changes with mismatched aims. Both branded as “reformers” when taking office, Obama and Cameron focused on domestic reforms and adopted pragmatic and “retraction” strategies on world affairs almost simultaneously.

Obama has clearly abandoned his predecessor’s unilateralism and shaped his own doctrine centered on prudent use of force, the combination of intervention and retrenchment, smart power, reallocation of limited resources, etc. Therefore, the US hopes to retain its leadership in the Western alliance but at the same time urges its allies such as the UK to shoulder more responsibilities when facing regional security challenges. The UK, however, preoccupied with its own economic problems and stuck in “post-Iraq fatigue”, has limited resources and willingness to act as the vanguard for the US.

Another element is about Europe. US values its ties with UK not only for what the UK could offer on bilateral terms but also its role in the EU. Both in the Anglophone world, the US and UK see eye to eye with each other on many issues ranging from economic and security. On the economic front, the UK staying in the EU would not only support the US on important deals such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership; moreover, it will help shape the EU in a direction that the US would like to see. On the security front, a more recent case illustrating the value of the UK inside the EU is that it has helped the US to consolidate the EU’s strong attitude towards Russia.

Recent years have seen a marginalized UK role in European affairs, due to fact that it is outside both the Eurozone and the Schengen Area, and its Eurosceptic stance further tarnished its profile. A weakened UK role in the EU has already aroused concern in the US. A possible Brexit would undoubted damage the special relationship.

Some people argue China is another factor that might derail the US-UK special relationship. It is more reasonable to say that the challenge that might create a future rift in the US-UK special relationship should be their own different attitudes towards the evolution or reform in international system.

The US, still obsessed with its dominant power in the international system, is strongly suspicious of the bigger role played by emerging countries represented by China. President Obama warned in 2014 that China should not undermine international order and later in 2015 that the rules of global economy cannot be written by China.

The UK, on the contrary, has sensed that the evolution and reform in international system bring about opportunity for Britain, and is ready to seize upon it. The UK is more open-minded towards its cooperation with China. In 2013, Prime Minister Cameron said UK would like to be the China’s biggest advocate in the West. In addition the application to join the AIIB, which led to discontent from US, in matters of RMB internationalization and China’s market economy status, the UK adopts a different stance from the US.

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