Image of UK and USA flags
Alliance of the English Speaking Peoples? English Language Grunge Flag. Photo ©

Nicolas Raymond,, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

October 2016

The 70th anniversary of the speech in which Winston Churchill coined the phrase ‘special relationship’ comes at a challenging moment. As America approaches its most controversial Presidential election in a generation and the UK continues to experience the reverberations of its decision to leave the European Union, Nicholas Cull, Professor of Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California, gives his personal perspective on the past and future of the Anglo-American alliance.

A triumph of policy rather than nature

Longstanding international relationships are like mountains – central features of a landscape which provide a fixed point of orientation and define the lives of those who live in their shadow. Yet like mountains such relationships can look very different based on the relative location of the observer. The Anglo-American Special Relationship is no exception. I spent much of the 1980s studying the origins of the Special Relationship as a historian located in the UK and thought that I understood its twists and turns: its ethnic and linguistic component, the role of military and intelligence cooperation, and the presence of media portrayals in laying foundations and sustaining a vital partnership. I was mistaken. My view changed when I relocated to the United States. 

To be blunt, we British thought more about the Americans than they thought about us

It was abundantly clear from American press coverage and conversation alike that while the UK/US relationship was significant it was not as exclusive as British observers fancied. To be blunt, we British thought more about the Americans than they thought about us. In the first instance I learned that the United States thought inordinately more about itself than about any foreign country, but when they did think about others they had a number of locations with a claim on their attention. The US had special relationships with more countries than just Britain. The list included immediate neighbours Canada and Mexico and, further afield, Israel, Australia, Germany and even Japan. France had a fine set of historical allusions which could be flourished when diplomatically expedient: Lafayette; Franklin in Paris; the Statue of Liberty and so forth. The experience of realizing all this was rather like discovering one’s father was a bigamist with half a dozen families to his name. The insight required a rapid readjustment of expectations downward.  

A relationship with so many rivals and the ever-present temptation of self-contemplation could not be taken for granted, and indeed never has been. For all its ease and natural appearance the Special Relationship has always required investment and cultivation. The Anglo-American Special Relationship is a triumph of policy rather than nature, and has benefited from innumerable gentle interventions to help the course of cultural relations. Before government-sponsored agencies like the British Council played a role, private foundations worked to build links through civic projects like those of the English Speaking Union or educational exchanges like those founded by Cecil Rhodes in the UK or Edward Harkness in the US. It is striking how the alumni of these exchanges became a cadre of transatlantic interpreters across the twentieth century. On Britain’s side it has served the government well to periodically remind the United States of its debt to and affinity for British culture. Celebrations in 1916 of the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death were part of the official effort to draw the neutral US into a common cause in the Great War; music, literature and broadcasting were part of the analogous effort before Pearl Harbor; closer to our own time government support for blockbuster exhibitions like the storied ‘Treasure Houses of Britain’ in the mid-1980s steered American perceptions away from some darker corners of the realm, including the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. At the high-policy level the rhetoric of the Special Relationship was as much aspirational as strictly descriptive. It served as an argument that its parties should remember the wartime partnership, and continue mutual connection. It is ironic given the eagerness of the United States to foster European integration in the post-war period that Britain’s attachment to the transatlantic alliance should have served as a palpable drag on its involvement in the European project and indeed should surface as an argument in support of Brexit.

Bronze sculpture cof Churchill and Roosevelt sitting on a bench
Forging the sinews of peace. Statue of Churchill and FDR in London. Image ©

under Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication licence and adapted from the original.

While the achievement of this managed past is a powerful argument for continuing such work, this is not to say that the precise content of the cultural relations interventions needs to be sustained like a kind of sacred formula or treasured family recipe for Granny’s Yorkshire pudding. Successful relationships require listening and adaptation and a clear eye for understanding the relevance of the relationship to all parties. This raises a problem. Elements of the Anglo-American relationship have served less than admirable purposes. In the US a facility with British culture has been a marker of social superiority and British connections are sometimes used in a process of social exclusion. Winning a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford is more than an indication of intellectual excellence; it is an admission ticket to the American elite. British cultural relations professionals have to choose between playing to a choir of old friends and seeking relevance with the emerging sections of American society, lest Britain be left behind like a relic of childhood: the threadbare cultural security blanket for the old elite. 


At its best Britain has served as an accessible source of alternate ways of thinking for the United States

But Britain can be more. At its best Britain has served as an accessible source of alternate ways of thinking for the United States: a parallel universe where society took what some Americans see as an inexplicable turn towards universal healthcare and away from gun-ownership and capital punishment. The British Council has worked hard to maintain the relevance of the UK to a broad (and broadening) range of Americans. The development of Spanish language theatre in California was much assisted by the Council-sponsored residence of Peter Brook in 1973.  More recently – staying in the field of theatre – the Council has been involved in supporting the work of the Actor’s Gang Prison Program, an award-winning program of drama rehabilitation project for prisoners, bringing its director of outreach – Sabra Williams – into the Cultural Exchange International program.  As the US evolves the UK will need to continue to build these kinds of initiatives, and most especially to develop solutions to some of the problems we share, such as managing the tensions of increasingly diverse and unequal societies within the strictures of sustainability. 

What of the future? One of the greatest achievements of the Anglo-American Special Relationship was its role as midwife to the best principles of the post-war world: the values of the Atlantic Charter and its follow-up United Nations declaration which gave all humanity a vision of a better world during the dark moments of World War Two. The world is once again in need of a vision of the future to lift its citizens above the politics of ‘building walls’ and making countries ‘great again,’ in vogue in so many places including too many quarters in the US and UK themselves. To identify and articulate compelling, shared visions of a collective future should be a priority of Anglo-American exchanges and dialogue. The risks attending a world which retreats from its core alliances, or which adheres to them for reasons of habit or chauvinism does not bear contemplating.

Professor Nicholas J. Cull, Director of the Master’s Program in Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California and author of ‘Selling War: British Propaganda Against American Neutrality in World War Two.’ 

See also