Is the special relationship still special?
August 9th, 2012
10:45 AM ET

Is the special relationship still special?

By Fareed Zakaria

As Americans watch the London Olympics, commentators filling airtime have speculated on the decline of the special relationship between the U.S. and the U.K. Mitt Romney took a few swipes at Barack Obama for being responsible for this decline when he was in London two weeks ago. Actually, the bonds between the United States and United Kingdom remain very strong. Why?

Well, first – whether or not Romney actually said it – he simple fact is that Britain’s heritage is a crucial component of the United States. The country was founded by Englishmen seeking liberty along English lines. The institutions are so similar, the cultures are so similar, the values system is so similar that in a sense there’s an almost symbiotic relationship at the structural level.

This isn’t to say that things haven’t evolved and American society hasn’t been enriched by diverse groups from all over then world. But that’s not really what’s changed the special relationship.” That term came into being to describe the link between the two most powerful countries in the world. Remember during World war II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was running the world’s largest economy and a growing military superpower. But Winston Churchill presided over a country with an enormous empire, ruling about a quarter of the world’s surface. Britain still also had a huge navy as well as enormous economic power. The pound sterling was still the reserve currency of the world. That – Britain’s role – is what has really changed.

During the Cold war, the asymmetry of power meant that Britain became a junior power to Washington, but at a time when Europe was the central arena of global politics and Britain was key to the strategy of containing the Soviet Union. Now there’s no Cold war, power is shifting to Asia and Britain is a small, wealthy island off the coast of Europe with one global financial center and lots of nice old country estates.

I think that Americans will still find Britain the country they feel most at home in, and Briton’s will probably find America the country they feel most at home in. I have enormous affection for Britain. But the global structure of power has shifted and that means the old special relationship can’t be brought back, no matter how many busts of Churchill we place in the White House.

In the future, I think that the relationship between the two will remain very strong. You only have to look at the bonds between Israel and the United States – the fact that Israel is a very small country hasn’t lessened the ties that exist between the two. But it won’t be central to global affairs the way it was in the past.


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