In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section US–UK Special Relationship

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Archives

International Relations US–UK Special Relationship
David Hastings Dunn, Edward Avenell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 November 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0189


Relations between the United Kingdom and the United States, special or otherwise, have been of perennial interest across the Atlantic since before American independence in 1776. The extensive contemporary academic literature on this topic reflects the political and popular appetite to test the temperature of the central relationship at the heart of British foreign and security policy. Rather like the queen in “Snow White” a nagging desire exists to know whether the United Kingdom is still the “fairest one of all,” or at least the most “special” in the eyes of Washington. It is a tendency that accompanies every summit meeting, bilateral or institutional, and every international crisis during which a policy statement is expected from president and prime minister. For these reasons alone then it is a topic that generates academic debate and discourse aplenty. The profusion of literature on the topic is also facilitated by the ease of access to material. British scholars have easy access to press reports and the policy communities on either side of the Atlantic. The periodic release of archives and memoirs also provides additional opportunities to pick over relations and reevaluate the received opinion of previous debates. The centrality of the United States to world politics means that there are alwaysnew policy dilemmas to deliberate on. And further relations with Washington also play a countervailing role in that other great British obsession, relations with Europe. Relations between London and Washington are more important, however, than merely the latest beauty contest among world leaders. For the United Kingdom something more fundamental is involved in both guiding and accompanying the United States on its global leadership mission. That is the sense in which the United States has adopted the civilizing mission that Britons believed themselves to be following in their pursuit of empire. In Kipling’s politically incorrect invocation, the United States has taken up “the white man’s burden . . . to veil the threat of terror, and check the show of pride” and has undertaken to “fight the savage wars of peace,” and, for its part, the United Kingdom has pledged to support it in that mission both morally and materially. In this way the United States is seen as special to the United Kingdom in that it provides the means of continuing the spread of Britain’s version of modernity. By staying close, Britain believes that it has managed to harness American power to what has become a common vision of a more benign future shaped by common values. By allowing the United Kingdom a supporting part in its hegemony the United States preserves and enhances Britain’s world role beyond that which it is materially capable of carrying out alone in return for the support of a close and still capable ally. In this way by treating the relationship as special, the United States preserves the United Kingdom’s elevated role on the world stage and, in return, is supported and legitimized in its own role as part of that grand bargain. The foundations of the relationship have been exhaustively analyzed, from common historical, cultural, and linguistic ties to common legal structures and religion to the intertwined intelligence, military, and nuclear communities to the mutual admiration for strong leadership characters. Works have plotted the upturns and downturns in the relationship and the differences between access to Washington and influence over it. Over time the name of the relationship has itself also changed. Until the 1990s, both governments referred to the “Anglo-American special relationship.” Since then, at the insistence of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the more technically and politically correct usage has been “UK-US special relationship” (or US-UK). Some scholars, however, stick to “Anglo American” to stress the dominance of England or Englishness in this relationship or perhaps simply to avoid the less felicitous term. Certainly the term special relationship has varied in its popularity and its uses over time and, however cringe worthy to many a politician or diplomat, it remains sufficiently popular in journalism circles to ensure its future longevity. This article cites academic work that examines the history, nature, health, and future of this relationship. For ease of access the works are split into several themed sections. By their nature some pieces could have appeared under several headings.

General Overview

The works reviewed in this section cover a mixture of themes. Many volumes explore the entire period from the birth of the relationship to the present day. These works allow for a long-term view that describes the inception and evolution of the alliance while providing analysis of its features and the major events it has faced. A comprehensive history of the special relationship is provided in Bartlett 1992, Ellis 2009, and Ovendale 1998. These works cover the entire period and treat every major event. Bartlett 1992 explores the theme of imperial decline and Britain’s growing dependence on the United States. Burk 2007 provides perhaps the most comprehensive overview of the special relationship, starting with the settling of North America and ending with the second Iraq War. Alex Dancev has written extensively on the special relationship, and Danchev 1998 offers a collection of the author’s essays covering almost every aspect of US-UK relations. Dimbleby and Reynolds 1988 and Nicholas 1963 examine the history of the period and both conclude that it has been remarkably successful despite what critics say. The special relationship emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War and, since then, both countries have faced multiple crises; Bayliss 1997 examines the history of the relationship through these periods. Dobson and Marsh 2013 provide a detailed history of the contemporary special relationship.

  • Bartlett, Christopher J. “The Special Relationship”: A Political History of Anglo-American Relations since 1945. London: Longman, 1992.

    Bartlett provides a comprehensive overview of “Anglo-American” relations since the end of the Second World War and culminates with the first Gulf War. It details the times when the relationship has been strained and those when the partners have worked together most closely. His work explores the theme of British imperial decline and Britain’s growing reliance on the United States.

  • Bayliss, John. Anglo-American Relations since 1939: The Enduring Alliance. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1997.

    Bayliss looks at how the relationship has evolved over time and how the different crises have shaped it. He explores how the term special relationship has been utilized in diplomacy by both sides. The work contains a fascinating chapter on the future prospects for the alliance.

  • Burk, Kathleen. Old World, New World: The Story of Britain and America. London: Little Brown, 2007.

    Burk explores the history of UK-US relations from both sides of the Atlantic. By taking a long-term view exploring the motivations for the settling of North America, the Second World War, and the birth of the special relationship, and culminating with the second Iraq War, Burk provides a broad historical analysis of the special relationship.

  • Danchev, Alex. On Specialness: Essays in Anglo-American Relations. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-26241-0

    A collection of Danchev’s essays on the special relationship that covers a wide range of topics and issues in times of both war and peace. This collection of essays aims to “investigate the who and what and how” of the “special relationship” and speaks to how the term has been used and misused.

  • Dimbleby, David, and David Reynolds. An Ocean Apart: The Relationship between Britain and America in the Twentieth Century. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988.

    This work, which accompanied the popular BBC TV series of the same name, provides an informative and interesting exploration of the history and path of the special relationship in the 20th century and concludes that, despite periods of difficulty, it has always remained a close and remarkably successful one, made easier by shared language and cultural values. It also makes good use of photographs and cartoons.

  • Dobson, Alan P., and Steve Marsh, eds. Anglo-American Relations: Contemporary Perspectives. London: Routledge, 2013.

    One of the first truly in-depth studies of the post–Cold war special relationship, this work combines new research methods and explores new topics, such as the environment and personal ties, to bring a fresh approach to the traditional topic of the special relationship in the wake of Blair, Bush, and the Iraq War.

  • Ellis, Sylvia. Historical Dictionary of Anglo-American Relations. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2009.

    An extensive chronology details the events that have built the special relationship and the times during which it has been tested. The significant events are well reviewed and an extensive cast of participating characters are examined and catalogued.

  • Nicholas, Herbert G. Britain and the United States. London: Chatto & Windus, 1963.

    Nicholas provides analysis of the dealings between the US and UK governments. He examines how the two nations combined their different strengths, to overcome difficult challenges. He concludes with praise for the special relationship and its role in finding peaceful solutions.

  • Ovendale, Ritchie. Anglo-American Relations in the Twentieth Century. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998.

    This work is a long-view study of the special relationship that contains some interesting reinterpretations. Heavy use of original source material is provided.

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