The goal was to accept a subordinate position without being simply another U.S. ally. The British used that relationship to extract special concessions and considerations other allies did not receive. They also were able to influence U.S. policy in ways others couldn't. The United States was not motivated to go along merely out of sentiment based on shared history, although that played a part. Rather, like all great powers, the United States wanted to engage in coalition warfare and near warfare along with burden sharing. Britain was prepared to play this role more effectively than other countries, thereby maintaining a global influence based on its ability to prompt the use of U.S. forces in its interest.
Much of this was covert, such as U.S. intelligence and security aid for Britain during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Other efforts were aimed at developing economic relationships and partnerships that might have been questionable with other countries but that were logical with Britain. A good example -- though not a very important one -- was London's ability to recruit U.S. support in Britain's war against Argentina in the Falkland Islands, also known as the Malvinas. The United States had no interests at stake, but given that Britain did have an interest, the U.S. default setting was to support the British.
There were two dangers for the British in this relationship. The first was the cost of maintaining the force relative to the benefits. In extremis, the potential benefits were great. In normal times, the case easily could be made that the cost outstripped the benefit. The second was the danger of being drawn so deeply into the U.S. orbit that Britain would lose its own freedom of action, effectively becoming, as some warned, the 51st state.
Britain modified its strategy from maintaining the balance of power on the Continent to maintaining a balance between the United States and Europe. This allowed it to follow its U.S. strategy while maintaining leverage in that relationship beyond a wholesale willingness to support U.S. policies and wars.
Britain has developed a strategy of being enmeshed in Europe without France's enthusiasm, at the same time positioning itself as the single most important ally of the only global power. There are costs on both sides of this, but Britain has been able to retain its options while limiting its dependency on either side.
As Europe increased its unity, Britain participated in Europe, but with serious limits. It exercised its autonomy and did not join the eurozone. While the United States remains Britain's largest customer for exports if Europe is viewed as individual countries, Europe as a whole is a bigger customer. Where others in Europe, particularly the Germans and French, opposed the Iraq war, Britain participated in it. At the same time, when the French wanted to intervene in Libya and the Americans were extremely reluctant, the British joined with the French and helped draw in the Americans.
Keeping Its Options Open
Britain has positioned itself superbly for a strategy of waiting, watching and retaining options regardless of what happens. If the European Union fails and the European nation-states re-emerge as primary institutions, Britain will be in a position to exploit the fragmentation of Europe to its own economic and political advantage and have the United States available to support its strategy. If the United States stumbles and Europe emerges more prominent, Britain can modulate its relationship with Europe at will and serve as the Europeans' interface with a weakened United States. If both Europe and the United States weaken, Britain is in a position to chart whatever independent course it must.