Sunday, March 28, 2010

"Fraternity" not good enough, anymore

The power of the words and the "attached meanings" has always featured prominently in international relations. So, it seems like the Foreign Affairs Committee in the British House of Commons has taken the courage to modify the 60-year-old label - "special relationship" - regarding the bilateral ties between the US and the UK. In a report titled "Global Security: UK-US Relations," dated March 28, 2010, the Committee says:

British and European politicians have been guilty of over-optimism about the extent of influence they have over the US. We must be realistic and accept that globalisation, structural changes and shifts in geopolitical power will inevitably affect the UK-US relationship.

Basically, the "special relationship" does not really work out as well for both of the sides, especially in light of Obama's approach towards the UK, which the report describes as "more pragmatic". The bottom line is, "The use of the phrase 'the special relationship' in its historical sense, to describe the totality of the ever-evolving UK-US relationship, is potentially misleading, and we recommend that its use should be avoided."

(Cartoon from The English Blog)

Hence the core issue: the over-use of the "label" by politicians and the media, while it does not truly reflect the reality (at least, not from the UK's point of view). It would just be interesting to find out which of the following factors featured most prominently in the Committee's deliberations: the attempt to"save face" by the Labor Party at home before the upcoming elections, given the ever-increasing negative public sentiment against the British involvement in Afghanistan, and especially in Iraq; a call to Mr. Obama to start looking for pets on the other side of the Atlantic; or, a public diplomacy measure, to improve UK's increasingly deteriorating image abroad due to the much-publicized Iraq Inquiry? (And here goes Tony Blair's much acclaimed participation in the International Visitor Leadership Program, and its significance in his "special 'special relationship'" with the US: down the drain... But then, the British still went into Iraq, so would it be what ultimately matters?)

Whatever the case, it reminds me of a Soviet joke about the "special relationship" that existed between the USSR and Bulgaria:

The Russian and the Bulgarian find a 25*-ruble bill, while walking in the street. The Russian, all excited, suggests, "Let's share it as brothers would!" The Bulgarian replies, "No, thanks. I'd rather share it equally."

See another priceless cartoon here.

The term "special relationship" was coined by Winston Churchill in his Iron Curtain speech in 1946 to describe the "fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples" against the common "enemy."

* [Update/Correction] I was kindly reminded that there were no 20-ruble bills in the Soviet Union. I guess I should be happy I don't really remember that time...



  1. Great post, but I think the cartoon is a little misleading--as is the implication that the Obama administration is taking the "special relationship" into new territory. In a 2001 British Politics course in the UK, my classmates (all American students studying abroad) and I were *shocked* to learn that such a thing existed. We don't study it in American schools or talk about it in the press. We were all reasonably savvy, well-educated college students, but none of us had even heard the term. Obama's "pragmatic approach" to US-UK relations is no more indifferent to UK influence than Bush's or Clinton's. US military and economic power has made the country selectively deaf to UK opinion for years. I actually think modifying the term may not be a bad idea.

  2. very good point, Laura. THAT is the problem - almost all of the British politicians over the past several decades have really acted as 'pets', but they had this term to rely on as a good "sell' to their own public. why would the US use it? for a great variety of reasons, it's enough just to say that UK is among the (if not THE MOST)friendly countries, and hence to rely on support.
    now, since the conservatives have been gaining significant ground at home with the increasing tensions in Afghanistan and the VERY big PR problem - the Iraq Inquiry - they decided not to lose the chance and start playing the words.
    but as i said in the post, i wonder what was the most significant consideration in their discussions... finally, they woke up and got real.