Over the last 200 years Britain and the US have gone to war—directly or indirectly—many timesby Ben Wilson / August 21, 2018 / Leave a comment
Just how special is the Special Relationship? In this compelling study, Kathleen Burk presents the relationship between Britain and the US as a complicated dance, one of rivalry punctuated by pragmatic cooperation. The vantage point isn’t Washington or Westminster; it is the periphery of both countries’s empires: places such as the Canadian border, China, Japan and Latin America.
Burke is talking about the informal empire of financial and military clout. This makes for apt comparison with contemporary America, with its client states and 750 military installations in 130 countries. Throughout the 19th century, wherever the US looked, it found the British Empire. The two countries went to war in 1812; on several occasions in the 19th century they almost fought again.
As its power ebbed, Britain needed the US. We conflated our “imperial interests with those of the rest of the right-thinking world.” We couldn’t understand why the US didn’t want to shore up its empire as a bulwark of the global order. The animosities did great harm in the interwar years when the US left Britain to cope with its international responsibilities with diminishing resources. Dismantling the empire was a key part of American policy.
But as the US rose to its position of dominance, American policymakers came to appreciate the strategic value of what was left of the British Empire. As the head of CIA covert operations said, “whenever there is somewhere we want to destabilise, the British have an island nearby.” In 1968 an economically weak Britain announced its withdrawal from its possessions east of Suez. “The US administration was outraged,” writes Burk. “It was the ultimate betrayal.” For Burk, this is an irony of history: the US was instrumental in bringing down the Empire and it was not happy with the result.
The Lion and the Eagle: The Interaction of the British and American Empires, 1783-1972 by Kathleen Burk (Bloomsbury, £30)