Nothing special, just US and them

The “special relationship” is not so top-of-mind in Washington, writes Michael Janofsky

special relationship

Did someone say “special” relationship?

Apart from a few years in the early nineteenth century when British troops were burning down symbols of the new America, like the Capitol and White House, the United States and United Kingdom have maintained warm relations, overcoming whatever bumps, bruises and canine metaphors that arose along the way.

The closeness reached a rhetorical apotheosis in 1946 when Winston Churchill, by then a former Prime Minister, delivered a speech in Fulton, Missouri, declaring a “special relationship” between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States, just as an “iron curtain” – another first mention — was descending across Europe.

Through the post-World War II years, the special relationship was built upon a three-legged stool of mutual benefit in areas of military support and intelligence sharing, economic interests and cultural history, all stitched together by a common language. The stool teetered only when the leaders of the two countries were not in perfect alignment on all three legs.

Some pairs of leaders were more in sync than others, like President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Tony Blair was tight with President George W Bush, even if the depiction of Blair as Bush’s “poodle” over the Iraq War lowered his popularity at home. Donald Trump and Theresa May were not exactly BFFs. But nearly every pairing of president and prime minister, including Joe Biden and Boris Johnson, has kept the diplo-mance alive against periodic frictions, including the latest British upset over the US planned exit from Afghanistan.

To the degree “special relationship” evokes feelings of reverence, dependence or frustration in London, it’s not so top-of-mind in Washington, owing largely to America’s superior military strength, economic power and probably a little hubris. OK, a lot of hubris. After all: we’re bigger and stronger, which often translates as: we’ll do what we want and don’t necessarily care what you think. What better example than the Afghan pullout. If our closest allies were miffed at its chaotic execution, so what?

Beyond that, the US has so many other contentious issues commanding daily attention these days — vaccine mandates, infrastructure legislation, climate challenges, immigrants flooding the southern border – that foreign policy disagreements with all but China seem to fade into the background.

“Depending on the issue, this is the challenge of the relationship,” said Heather Conley, a policy analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. “It is not an evenly balanced relationship, and this is where I would argue that the Biden administration, although it speaks so powerfully of the importance of allies, is finding itself no better skilled than the Trump administration, the Obama administration or, harkening back, to the Bush administration. We don’t know how to manage our strength.”

Or as US Senator Jeanne Shaheen, chair of the subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation, told Peter Mandelson, Chairman of Global Counsel, in a Zoom conversation: “The US can’t allow a rift in our relationships to embolden our adversaries.”

Conley’s analysis sharply reflects events of late summer, beginning with the Afghanistan withdrawal. While Biden administration officials insisted they had notified US allies, including Britain, Biden was roundly criticised by Johnson and other top UK officials for a hasty retreat that left Afghanistan much as it was twenty years before, with the Taliban in control. Conley argued that the Afghanistan withdrawal “embarrassed and humiliated our allies,” adding, “We were in Afghanistan for us, in part, but also for their security, immigration, drug trafficking, terrorism, things like that. Of course, they cannot stay behind without the US. But you don’t benefit strategically by showing the dependency of your allies, and that’s what we did.” special relationship

Biden alluded to as much in his debut speech at the United Nations in late September, stressing the urgency of allies working together to address the world’s thorniest issues, including climate change, the pandemic and the growing strength of autocracies. “Our security, our prosperity, and our very freedoms are interconnected, in my view, as never before,” he said. “And so, I believe we must work together as never before.”

Britain’s pique over Afghanistan notwithstanding, Johnson still got an invitation to the White House and a partnership deal with the US to bring nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. Never mind that the arrangement was negotiated in secret and nullified France’s $60 billion deal with Australia for less stealthy diesel-powered subs. France instantly recalled its ambassadors to the US and Australia, prompting Biden to make amends with French President Emmanuel Macron. France was also peeved at the UK, but Johnson dismissed those wounded feelings with a brisk, “Donnez-moi un break.”

These latest inter-ally hiccups have come as the US and Europe are each recalibrating their own foreign policy priorities. The US has clearly turned its focus toward China and the Indo-Pacific as Europe and the UK rethink their post-Brexit relationships, each side  committing to remain relevant on the world stage.

Biden said nothing specific about Britain in his UN speech. As he and Johnson spoke to reporters later in the day in Washington, Johnson mentioned “boosting our shared agenda,” but neither uttered the words “special relationship.” US Vice President Kamala Harris came closer in her own meeting with Johnson, citing a “special friendship.” But that was it.

Or maybe the exact words don’t really matter. Maybe closeness of the two countries is implicit no matter how the words are parsed on each side of the Atlantic. After all, the UK and the US remain each other’s single biggest economic investor— $505 billion from the UK and $851 billion from the US in 2019, the latest figures available from the US Chamber of Commerce.

Still, it was worth noting that in a chat with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in New York, Biden declared, “The United States has no closer or more reliable ally than Australia.”

Make of that what you will.

A red state gets redder. For now

All hail Texas, the Kingdom of Conservatism. Second among states in size and population, Texas is run by a Republican governor, with Republican majorities in both chambers of the legislature and voters who have favoured the Republican candidate in the last eleven presidential elections.

With so much political muscle, Texas Republicans have pushed through the nation’s most far right agenda with new laws that make it easy to carry a gun, hard to vote and nearly impossible for a woman to get an abortion. They are also trying to redraw Congressional districts to add Republican seats.

Altogether, it’s a dream landscape that has moved Texas to the fore among the 30 Republican-controlled states, many of them pushing back against Democrats in Congress with their progressive aspirations. Texas Governor Greg Abbott and his legislative compatriots are taking full advantage of their time in power to turn the state as deeply red as possible.

And here’s a reason for it: their time in control may be running out. Texas is changing. During Abbott’s two terms as governor – he’s running again next year — the state population has increased by nearly four million, accounting for the largest gain of any state since 2010 and for an additional two seats in the House of Representatives. The biggest Democrat states, California, New York and Illinois, each lost one seat.

And guess where many of the new Texans come from.

Texas became a majority minority state in 2004 and the non-white majority of Hispanics, Blacks, Asians and other people of colour tend to vote Democrat. While Trump won Texas in 2020, his margin of victory was the narrowest of any presidential candidate there in 24 years.

“What Trump did was activate that part of the Republican base, the Trumpites, to go out and vote the likes of which we’ve never seen before,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democrat party. “We increased voter turnout by 30 percent – imagine that – and still weren’t able to win. “It’s difficult to measure Trump’s current popularity in Texas. What is clear is the state’s changing demographics, prompting Republican efforts to try offsetting the trend by attracting more Republicans who (1) hate wearing masks (“government has no right to interfere with my personal choices”… well, except for abortions), (2) insist abortions are immoral (even in cases of rape and incest) and (3) buy Trump’s Big Lie that massive voter fraud cost him a second term (even though no such evidence exists). Democrats
say it’s only a matter of time before the demographic shift leads to a change in state leadership, which may help explain the Republican rush to legislative action.

Nothing reflects the Republican strategy more than the new anti-abortion restrictions. As the strongest such law in the nation, it was pushed through by white, pro-life Christians for whom life begins at conception. It precludes a woman from ending a pregnancy once a foetal heartbeat is detected, as early as six weeks, a time many women do not even know they are pregnant. It also invites any private citizen to sue someone involved with a Texas abortion – a doctor, nurse, counsellor, family member, even an Uber driver. A winning plaintiff is entitled to $10,000 from the defendant to cover legal fees. Already, disbarred lawyers in Arkansas and Illinois have sued a Texas doctor who admitted publicly he performed an abortion.

The abortion law has angered liberals even more than changes to the state’s election laws, which are aimed at Houston and other Democrat strongholds that expanded voting access during the pandemic. Gone are drive-through polling places, temporary voting locations and early voting opportunities.

Guns? Echoing the Wild West of the 19th century, anyone in Texas aged 21 or older can carry one.

It’s unclear for now if these conservative initiatives play to Republican advantage. They have left Democrats energised as never before, and the US Justice Department is challenging the Constitutionality of the new abortion law. Hinojosa says momentum is on the Democrats’ side, putting the governorship in play next year, especially with former Democrat Congressman Beto O’Rourke a likely candidate.

“They know that,” he said of the Republican leadership. “That’s why they’re rushing to get all this stuff done. Once we take the House, a real possibility, they won’t be able to pass any more of these laws. We may have a hard time rolling back legislation, but they won’t be able to do anything new at that point.”

Michael Janofsky is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. He previously spent 24 years as a correspondent for The New York Times

Current Affairs

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