Xenia Wickett is Head of the US and the Americas programme at Chatham House. This piece has been published in collaboration with Chatham House. The views expressed are the author's own.
In March 1946, in a speech in Fulton, Missouri, Winston Churchill first coined the phrase the "Special Relationship" to describe a bond between two great nations, the United States and Great Britain. Seventy years on, through inattentiveness, we are in danger of letting it slip away.
While we are in a very different place today than we were in 1946, there are some commonalities that should again make us alert to the importance of this special relationship.
As he looked back on World War II, Churchill noted the enormous strain and sacrifices that the United Kingdom, United States and others had made together to achieve victory and, looking forward, saw that we must build on that collaboration and draw closer to ensure "an overwhelming assurance of security." He saw the necessity of the U.S.-U.K. bond in pushing back the descent of the "Iron Curtain," a term also coined in this Fulton speech.
Today our militaries work to hold onto the lessons learned from a decade of joint operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. And yet, as spending declines on both sides of the Atlantic, and as the United States in particular focuses on new technologies and innovations, the divide between our militaries threatens to expand, with potential costs for our response to future conflicts.
Increasingly the United States looks to other allies for strategic partnership. In the military sphere, France was the chosen partner in Mali and was quickest to support the U.S. anti-ISIS airstrikes in Syria. The United Kingdom, by contrast, took many months to join the coalition. Germany, meanwhile, has become a critical diplomatic as well as economic partner. It was German Chancellor Angela Merkel who led negotiations with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine in February 2015, alongside the French Prime Minister, Francois Hollande. British Prime Minister David Cameron's absence was seen by many as emblematic of the United Kingdom's fading relevance to U.S. foreign policy.
The Second World War also jump-started a close intelligence relationship called the Five Eyes alliance that, along with the United States and Britain, includes Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. But it is with the United Kingdom that trouble has recently lain, as the British judiciary pushes back against American secrecy standards, threatening to reveal U.S. classified information.
If the British public chooses this summer to leave the European Union, it will be another broken link as America looks elsewhere in Europe for insight and for a way to engage U.S. interests in the European Union.
There is little question today that the U.S.-U.K. Special Relationship is being tested. But does this actually matter? Arguably, a more diverse relationship with many European partners would be a good development for both sides. London would be able to share the burden of international engagement with European partners and would no longer feel dragged into what many feel to be American-made quagmires. Meanwhile the United States would have an array of partners with whom to collaborate, rather than being tied to one.
But we lose something when this Anglo-American link fades behind newer relationships. For both, there is an irreplaceable understanding that is born from the common heritage, history, and values that the United Kingdom and United States hold.
Britain has greater leverage on the international scene alongside the United States. And Washington gains from British experience and history in many parts of the world, not least Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Middle East. Will the United Kingdom be so ready to share honestly if this close link dissipates?
As a British-American, by citizenship as well as culture, experience, and education, I know well the value of being able to draw on the strengths of the two nations. While I recognize the value of diversification, I cannot but believe that somehow we will all be made weaker by the loss of the Special Relationship.
Once again Churchill probably said it best: "If all British moral and material forces and convictions are joined with your own in fraternal association, the highroads of the future will be clear, not only for our time, but for a century to come." Seventy years later we face many of the same challenges of authoritarianism and fundamentalism. It remains crucial that the United Kingdom and United States stand strong beside one another to provide the foundation to break down those walls.