The Special Relationship is an unofficial term often used to describe the political, diplomatic, cultural, economic, military, and historical relations between the United Kingdom and the United States. The term first came into popular usage after it was used in a 1946 speech by Winston Churchill. The two nations have been close allies during many conflicts in the 20th and 21st centuries, including World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, the Gulf War, and the War on Terror.
Although both governments also have close relationships with many other nations, the level of cooperation between the UK and the U.S. in trade and commerce, military planning, execution of military operations, nuclear weapons technology, and intelligence sharing has been described as "unparalleled" among major world powers.
Some critics deny the existence of a "special relationship", calling it a myth. Former U.S. President Barack Obama considered Germany his "closest international partner" and said the U.K. would be at the "back of the queue" in any trade deal with the US if it left the European Union. Following the election of Donald Trump, the British government under Prime Minister Theresa May sought to establish "a new special relationship" with the Trump administration, a policy which is controversial in the UK, due in part to President Trump's unpopularity in the UK, where two-thirds of polled Britons think Trump has been either a "bad or "terrible" president, and as such tens of thousands turned out to protest against him during his private trip to the United Kingdom in July 2018, where he met the Queen and Prime Minister. Trump has claimed his relationship with Theresa May is "the highest level of special."
Although the "Special Relationship" between the U.K. and the U.S. was perhaps most memorably emphasized by Churchill, its existence, and even the term itself, had been recognized since the 19th century, not least by rival powers.
The governments of the United States and Great Britain were enemies when foreign relations between them first began, after the American colonies declared their independence from British rule, triggering the American Revolutionary War. Relations often continued to be strained through the mid-19th century, erupting into conflict during the War of 1812 and again verging on war when Britain almost supported the rebel Confederacy in the early part of the American Civil War. British leaders were constantly annoyed from the 1830s to the 1860s by what they saw as Washington's pandering to the democratic mob, as in the Aroostook War in 1838–39 and the Oregon boundary dispute in 1844–46. However, British middle-class public opinion sensed a common "special relationship" between the two peoples based on their shared language, migrations, evangelical Protestantism, liberal traditions, and extensive private trade. This constituency rejected war, forcing London to appease the Americans. During the Trent Affair of late 1861, London drew the line and Washington retreated.
Troops from the two nations had begun fighting side-by-side, sometimes spontaneously, in skirmishes overseas by 1859, and the two democracies shared a common bond of sacrifice during World War I. Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald's visit to the U.S. in 1930 confirmed his own belief in the "special relationship", and for this reason he looked to the Washington Treaty rather than a revival of the Anglo–Japanese alliance as the guarantee of peace in the Far East.
However, as David Reynolds observes: "For most of the period since 1919, Anglo-American relations had been cool and often suspicious. America's 'betrayal' of the League of Nations was only the first in a series of US actions—over war debts, naval rivalry, the 1931–2 Manchurian crisis and the Depression—that convinced British leaders that the United States could not be relied on". Equally, as President Harry S. Truman's Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, recalled: "Of course a unique relation existed between Britain and America—our common language and history ensured that. But unique did not mean affectionate. We had fought England as an enemy as often as we had fought by her side as an ally".
The outbreak of World War II provoked the rapid emergence of an unambiguously positive relationship between the two nations. The fall of France in 1940 has been described as a decisive event in international relations, leading the Special Relationship to displace the Entente Cordiale as the pivot of the international system. During the war, one observer noted that "Great Britain and the United States integrated their military efforts to a degree unprecedented among major allies in the history of warfare". "Each time I must choose between you and Roosevelt", Churchill shouted at General Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French, in 1945, "I shall choose Roosevelt". Between 1939 and 1945, Churchill and Roosevelt exchanged 1,700 letters and telegrams and met 11 times. Churchill estimated that they had 120 days of close personal contact. During one meeting, Roosevelt was wheeled to Churchill's room while Churchill was taking a shower. The confused Roosevelt wanted to leave but Churchill urged him to remain: "British Prime Minister has nothing to cover from US President."
Churchill's mother was a U.S. citizen, and he keenly felt the links between the two English-speaking peoples. He first used the term "special relationship" on 16 February 1944, when he said it was his "deepest conviction that unless Britain and the United States are joined in a special relationship… another destructive war will come to pass". He used it again in 1945 to describe not the Anglo–American relationship alone, but the U.K.'s relationship with both the U.S. and Canada. The New York Times Herald quoted Churchill in November 1945:
We should not abandon our special relationship with the United States and Canada about the atomic bomb and we should aid the United States to guard this weapon as a sacred trust for the maintenance of peace."
Churchill used the phrase again a year later, at the onset of the Cold War, this time to note the special relationship between the U.S. on the one hand, and the English-speaking nations of the British Commonwealth and Empire under the leadership of the U.K. on the other. The occasion was his "Sinews of Peace Address", delivered in Fulton, Missouri, on 5 March 1946:
Neither the sure prevention of war, nor the continuous rise of world organization will be gained without what I have called the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples ...a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States. Fraternal association requires not only the growing friendship and mutual understanding between our two vast but kindred systems of society, but the continuance of the intimate relationship between our military advisers, leading to common study of potential dangers, the similarity of weapons and manuals of instructions, and to the interchange of officers and cadets at technical colleges. It should carry with it the continuance of the present facilities for mutual security by the joint use of all Naval and Air Force bases in the possession of either country all over the world.
There is however an important question we must ask ourselves. Would a special relationship between the United States and the British Commonwealth be inconsistent with our over-riding loyalties to the World Organisation? I reply that, on the contrary, it is probably the only means by which that organisation will achieve its full stature and strength.
In the opinion of one international relations specialist: "the United Kingdom's success in obtaining US commitment to cooperation in the postwar world was a major triumph, given the isolation of the interwar period". A senior British diplomat in Moscow, Thomas Brimelow, admitted: "The one quality which most disquiets the Soviet government is the ability which they attribute to us to get others to do our fighting for us ... they respect not us, but our ability to collect friends". Conversely, "the success or failure of United States foreign economic peace aims depended almost entirely on its ability to win or extract the co-operation of Great Britain". Reflecting on the symbiosis, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1982 declared: "The Anglo-American relationship has done more for the defence and future of freedom than any other alliance in the world".
While most government officials on both sides have supported the Special Relationship, there have been sharp critics. British journalist Guy Arnold (b. 1932) denounced it in 2014 as a "sickness in the body politic of Britain that needs to be flushed out". Instead Arnold calls for closer relationships with Europe and Russia so as to rid "itself of the US incubus."
The intense level of military co-operation between the UK and US began with the creation of the Combined Chiefs of Staff in December 1941, a military command with authority over all US and British operations. Following the end of the Second World War the joint command structure was disbanded, but close military cooperation between the nations resumed in the early 1950s with the start of the Cold War.
Shared military bases
Since the Second World War and the subsequent Berlin Blockade, the US has maintained substantial forces in Great Britain. In July 1948, the first American deployment began with the stationing of B-29 bombers. Currently, an important base is the radar facility RAF Fylingdales, part of the US Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, although this base is operated under British command and has only one USAF representative for largely administrative reasons. Several bases with a significant US presence include RAF Menwith Hill (only a short distance from RAF Fylingdales), RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall.
Following the end of the Cold War, which was the main rationale for their presence, the number of US facilities in the UK has been reduced in number in line with the US military worldwide. Despite this, these bases have been used extensively in support of various peacekeeping and offensive operations of the 1990s and early 21st century.
The two nations also jointly operate on the British military facilities of Diego Garcia in the British Indian Ocean Territory and on Ascension Island, a dependency of Saint Helena in the Atlantic Ocean.
Nuclear weapons development
The Quebec Agreement of 1943 paved the way for the two countries to develop atomic weapons side by side, the UK handing over vital documents from its own Tube Alloys project and sending a delegation to assist in the work of the Manhattan Project. The US later kept the results of the work to itself under the postwar McMahon Act, but after the UK developed its own thermonuclear weapons, the US agreed to supply delivery systems, designs and nuclear material for British warheads through the 1958 US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement.
The UK purchased first Polaris and then the US Trident system which remains in use today. The 1958 agreement gave the UK access to the facilities at the Nevada Test Site, and from 1963 it conducted a total of 21 underground tests there before the cessation of testing in 1991. The agreement under which this partnership operates was updated in 2004; anti-nuclear activists claimed renewal may breach the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The U.S. and the U.K. jointly conducted subcritical nuclear experiments in 2002 and 2006, to determine the effectiveness of existing stocks, as permitted under the 1998 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.
The Reagan administration offered Britain the opportunity to purchase the F-117 Nighthawk stealth aircraft while a black program. The U.K. is the only collaborative, or Level One, international partner in the largest US aircraft procurement project in history, the F-35 Lightning II program. The U.K. was involved in writing the specification and selection and its largest defense contractor, BAE Systems is a partner of the American prime contractor Lockheed Martin. BAE Systems is also the largest foreign supplier to the US Defense Department and has been permitted to buy important US defense companies such as Lockheed Martin Aerospace Electronic Systems and United Defense.
The US operates several British designs including Chobham Armour, the RAF Harrier GR9 or United States Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier II and the US Navy T-45 Goshawk. The UK also operates several American designs, including the Javelin anti-tank missile, M270 rocket artillery, the Apache gunship, C-130 Hercules and C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft.
Other areas of cooperation
A cornerstone of the Special Relationship is the collecting and sharing of intelligence. This originated during World War II with the sharing of code-breaking knowledge and led to the 1943 BRUSA Agreement, signed at Bletchley Park. After World War II the common goal of monitoring and countering the threat of communism prompted the UK-USA Security Agreement of 1948. This agreement brought together the SIGINT organizations of the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand and is still in place today (see: Five Eyes). The head of the CIA station in London attends each weekly meeting of the British Joint Intelligence Committee.
One present-day example of such cooperation is the UKUSA Community, comprising the U.S. National Security Agency, the U.K. Government Communications Headquarters, Australia's Defence Signals Directorate and Canada's Communications Security Establishment collaborating on ECHELON, a global intelligence gathering system. Under classified bilateral accords, UKUSA members do not spy on each other.
Following the discovery of the 2006 transatlantic aircraft plot, the CIA began to assist the Security Service (MI5) by running its own agent networks in the British Pakistani community. Security sources estimate 40 per cent of CIA activity to prevent a terrorist attack in the US involves operations inside the UK. One intelligence official commented on the threat against the US from British Islamists: "The fear is that something like this would not just kill people but cause a historic rift between the US and the UK".
The U.S. is the largest source of foreign direct investment to the U.K., and the U.K. is likewise the largest single foreign direct investor in the U.S. British trade and capital have been important components of the American economy since its colonial inception. In trade and finance, the Special Relationship has been described as "well-balanced", with London's "light-touch" regulation in recent years attracting a massive outflow of capital from New York. The key sectors for British exporters to the U.S. are aviation, aerospace, commercial property, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, and heavy machinery.
British ideas, classical and modern, have also exerted a profound influence on U.S. economic policy, most notably those of the historian Adam Smith on free trade and the economist John Maynard Keynes on counter-cyclical spending, while the British government has adopted workfare reforms from the U.S. American and British investors share entrepreneurial attitudes towards the housing market, and the fashion and music industries of each country are major influences on their counterparts. Trade ties have been strengthened by globalisation, while both governments agree on the need for currency reform in China and educational reform at home to increase their competitiveness against India's developing service industries. In 2007, the U.S. ambassador suggested to British business leaders that the Special Relationship could be used "to promote world trade and limit environmental damage as well as combating terrorism".
We are not only each other's largest investors in each of our countries, one to the other, but the fact is that every day almost one million people go to work in the United States for British companies that are in the United States, just as more than one million people go to work here in Great Britain for U.S. companies that are here. So we are enormously tied together, obviously. And we are committed to making both the U.S.-UK and the U.S.-EU relationships even stronger drivers of our prosperity.
The Special Relationship has often depended on the personal relations between British prime ministers and U.S. presidents. The first example was the close relationship between Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, who were in fact distantly related.
Prior to their collaboration during World War II, Anglo–American relations had been somewhat frosty. President Woodrow Wilson and Prime Minister David Lloyd George in Paris had been the only previous leaders of the two nations to meet face-to-face, but had enjoyed nothing that could be described as a "special relationship", although Lloyd George's wartime Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, got on well with Wilson during his time in the United States and helped convince the previously skeptical president to enter World War I.
Churchill spent much time and effort cultivating the relationship, which paid dividends for the war effort. Two great architects of the Special Relationship on a practical level were Field Marshal Sir John Dill and General George Marshall, whose excellent personal relations and senior positions (Roosevelt was especially close to Marshall), oiled the wheels of the alliance considerably.
Major links were created during the war, such as the Combined Chiefs of Staff. Britain, previously somewhat the senior partner, had found herself the junior beginning in 1941. The diplomatic policy was thus two-pronged, encompassing strong personal support and equally forthright military and political aid. These two have always operated in tandem; that is to say, the best personal relationships between British prime ministers and American presidents have always been those based around shared goals. For example, Harold Wilson's government would not commit troops to Vietnam, and Wilson and Lyndon Johnson did not get on especially well.
Peaks in the Special Relationship include the bonds between Harold Macmillan (who like Churchill had an American mother) and John F. Kennedy; between James Callaghan and Jimmy Carter, who were close personal friends despite their differences in personality; between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan; and more recently between Tony Blair and both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Nadirs have included Dwight D. Eisenhower's opposition to U.K. operations in Suez under Anthony Eden and Harold Wilson's refusal to enter the war in Vietnam.
Churchill and Roosevelt (May 1940–April 1945)
When Winston Churchill entered the office of Prime Minister, Great Britain had already entered World War II. Immediately at the start of Churchill's Prime Ministership, the Battle of Dunkirk took place.
Before Churchill's premiership, President Roosevelt had secretively been in frequent correspondence with him. Their correspondence had begun in September 1939, at the very start of World War II. In these private communications, the two had been discussing ways in which the United States might support Britain in their war effort. However, at the time when Winston Churchill assumed the office of Prime Minister, Roosevelt was nearing the end of his second term and making considerations of seeking election to an unprecedented third term (he would make no public pronouncements about this until the Democratic National Convention that year). From the United States' experience during the First World War, Roosevelt judged that involvement in the Second World War was likely to be an inevitability. This was a key reason for Roosevelt's decision to break from tradition and seek a third term. Roosevelt desired to be President when the United States would finally be drawn into entering the conflict. However, in order to win a third term, Roosevelt made the American people promises that he would keep them out of the war.
In November 1940, upon Roosevelt's victory in the presidential election, Churchill sent him a congratulatory letter,
Having promised the American public to avoid entering any foreign war, Roosevelt went as far as public opinion allowed in providing financial and military aid to Britain, France and China. In a December 1940 talk, dubbed the Arsenal of Democracy Speech, Roosevelt declared, "This is not a fireside chat on war. It is a talk about national security". He went on to declare the importance of the United States' support of Britain's war effort, framing it as a matter of national security for the U.S. As the American public opposed involvement in the conflict, Roosevelt sought to emphasize that it was critical to assist the British in order to prevent the conflict from reaching American shores. He aimed to paint the British war effort as beneficial to the United States by arguing that they would contain the Nazi threat from spreading across the Atlantic.
If Great Britain goes down, the Axis powers will be in a position to bring enormous military and naval resources against this hemisphere... We are the Arsenal of Democracy. Our national policy is to keep war away from this country.— Franklin D. Roosevelt, Fireside chat delivered on December 29, 1940
To assist the British war effort, Roosevelt enacted the Lend-Lease policy and drafted the Atlantic Charter with Churchill. The United States ultimately joined the war effort in December 1941, under Roosevelt's leadership.
Roosevelt and Churchill had a relative fondness of one another. They connected on their shared passions for tobacco and liquors, and their mutual interest in history and battleships. Churchill later wrote, "I felt I was in contact with a very great man, who was also a warm-hearted friend, and the foremost champion of the high causes which we served."
One anecdote that has been told to illustrate the intimacy of Churchill and Roosevelt's bond alleges that once, while hosting Churchill at the White House, Roosevelt stopped by the bedroom in which the Prime Minister was staying to converse with him. Churchill answered his door in a state of nudity, remarking, "You see, Mr. President, I have nothing to hide from you." The president is said to have taken this in good humor, later joking with an aide that Churchill was, "pink and white all over."
Between 1939 and 1945, Roosevelt and Churchill exchanged an estimated 1700 letters and telegrams and met with one another 11 times. On Churchill's 60th birthday, Roosevelt wrote him, "It is fun to be in the same decade as you." Beginning under Roosevelt and Churchill, the U.S. and U.K. worked together closely to establish the IMF, World Bank and NATO.
Churchill and Truman (April–July 1945)
Roosevelt died in April 1945, shortly into his fourth term in office, and was succeeded by his vice president, Harry Truman. Churchill and Truman likewise developed a strong relationship with one another. While he was saddened by the death of Roosevelt, Churchill was a strong supporter of Truman in his early presidency, calling him, "the type of leader the world needs when it needs him most." At the Potsdam Conference, Truman and Churchill, along with Joseph Stalin, made agreements for settling the boundaries of Europe.
Attlee and Truman (July 1945–October 1951)
Four months into Truman's presidency, Churchill's party was handed a surprise defeat at the polls, and Clement Attlee became Prime Minister.
The deputy in Churchill's wartime coalition government, Attlee had been in the United States at the time of Roosevelt's death, and thus had met with Truman immediately after he took office. The two of them had come to like one another. However, Attlee and Truman never became particularly close with one another. During their coinciding tenure as heads of government, they only met on three occasions. The two did not maintain regular correspondence. Their working relationship with each other, nonetheless, remained sturdy.
When Attlee assumed the position of Prime Minister, negotiations had not yet been completed at the Potsdam Conference, which had begun on July 17. Attlee took Churchill's place at the conference once he was named Prime Minister on July 26. Therefore, Attlee's first sixteen days as Prime Minister were spent handling negotiations at the conference.
Attlee flew to Washington in December 1950 to support Truman in standing up against Douglas MacArthur. In 1951, Truman pressured Attlee not to intervene against Mossadeq in Iran. In his time as Prime Minister, Attlee also managed to convince Truman to agree to greater nuclear cooperation.
Churchill and Truman (October 1951–January 1953)
Churchill became Prime Minister again in October 1951. He had maintained his relationship with Truman during his six-year stint as Leader of the Opposition. In 1946, on invitation from Truman, Churchill visited the U.S. to deliver a speech at Westminster College in Truman's home state of Missouri. The speech, which would be remembered as the "Iron Curtain" speech, affected greater public attention to the schism that had developed between the Soviet Union and the rest of the Allied Powers. During this trip, Churchill lost a significant amount of cash in a poker game with Harry Truman and his advisors. In 1947, Churchill had written Truman an unheeded memo recommending that the United States make a pre-emptive atomic bomb strike on Moscow before the Soviet Union could acquire nuclear weapons themselves.
Churchill and Eden visited Washington in January 1952. At the time, Truman's administration was supporting plans for a European Defence Community in hopes that it would allow West Germany to undergo rearmament, consequentially enabling the U.S. to decrease the number of American troops stationed in Germany. Churchill opposed the EDC, feeling that it could not work. He also asked, unsuccessfully, for the United States to commit its forces to supporting Britain in Egypt and the Middle East. This had no appeal for Truman. Truman expected the British to assist the Americans in their fight against communist forces in Korea, but felt that supporting the British in the Middle East would be assisting them in their imperialist efforts, which would do nothing to thwart communism. Truman opted not to seek re-election in 1952, and his presidency ended in January 1953.
Churchill and Eisenhower (January 1953–April 1955)
Dwight D. Eisenhower and Churchill were both familiar with one another, as they had both been significant leaders of the Allied effort during World War II. Relations were strained, however, by Eisenhower's outrage over Churchill's half-baked attempt to set up a "parley at the summit" with Joseph Stalin.
Eden and Eisenhower (April 1955–January 1957)
By the time Eden took office, Gamal Abdel Nasser had built up Egyptian nationalism and threatened to take control of the vital Suez Canal. When Nasser seized the canal in July 1956 and closed the Straits of Tiran to all Israeli ships, Eden made a secret agreement with France and Israel to invade Egypt. Eisenhower repeatedly warned the United States would not accept military intervention. When the invasion came anyway, the United States denounced it at the United Nations, and used financial power to force the British and French to completely withdraw. Britain lost its prestige and its powerful role in Mid-Eastern affairs, to be replaced by the Americans. Eden, in poor health, was forced to retire.
Macmillan and Eisenhower (January 1957–January 1961)
Once he took office, Macmillan worked to undo the strain that the Special Relationship had incurred in the preceding years. Macmillan famously quipped that it was Britain's historical duty to guide the power of the United States as the ancient Greeks had the Romans. He endeavoured to broaden the Special Relationship beyond Churchill's conception of an English-Speaking Union into a more inclusive "Atlantic Community". His key theme, "of the interdependence of the nations of the Free World and the partnership which must be maintained between Europe and the United States", was one that Kennedy subsequently took up.
Macmillan and Kennedy (January 1961–October 1963)
Kennedy was an anglophile. Kennedy's father had previously served as the US ambassador to the UK and his sister had been Marchioness of Hartington, whose husband was incidentally Macmillan's nephew by marriage.
The Special Relationship was perhaps tested the most severely by the Skybolt crisis of 1962, when Kennedy cancelled a joint project without consultation. Skybolt was a nuclear air-to-ground missile that could penetrate Soviet airspace and would extend the life of Britain's deterrent, which consisted only of free-falling hydrogen bombs. London saw cancellation as a reduction in the British nuclear deterrent. The crisis was resolved during a series of compromises that led to the Royal Navy purchasing the American UGM-27 Polaris missile and construction of the Resolution-class submarines to launch them. The debates over Skybolt were top secret, but tensions were exacerbated when Dean Acheson, a former Secretary of State, challenged publicly the Special Relationship and marginalised the British contribution to the Western alliance. Acheson said:
Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role—that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based on a 'Special Relationship' with the United States, a role based on being the head of a 'Commonwealth' which has no political structure, or unity, or strength and enjoys a fragile and precarious economic relationship—this role is about played out.
On learning of Acheson's attack, Macmillan thundered in public:
In so far as he appeared to denigrate the resolution and will of Britain and the British people, Mr. Acheson has fallen into an error which has been made by quite a lot of people in the course of the last four hundred years, including Philip of Spain, Louis XIV, Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler. He also seems to misunderstand the role of the Commonwealth in world affairs. In so far as he referred to Britain's attempt to play a separate power role as about to be played out, this would be acceptable if he had extended this concept to the United States and to every other nation in the Free World. This is the doctrine of interdependence, which must be applied in the world today, if Peace and Prosperity are to be assured. I do not know whether Mr. Acheson would accept the logical sequence of his own argument. I am sure it is fully recognised by the US administration and by the American people.
The looming collapse of the alliance between the two thermonuclear powers forced Kennedy into an about-face at the Anglo-American summit in Nassau, where he agreed to sell Polaris as a replacement for the cancelled Skybolt. Richard E. Neustadt in his official investigation concluded the crisis in the Special Relationship had erupted because "the president's 'Chiefs' failed to make a proper strategic assessment of Great Britain's intentions and its capabilities".
The Skybolt crisis with Kennedy came on top of Eisenhower's wrecking of Macmillan's policy of détente with the Soviet Union at the May 1960 Paris summit, and the prime minister's resulting disenchantment with the Special Relationship contributed to his decision to seek an alternative in British membership of the European Economic Community (EEC). According to a recent analyst: "What the prime minister in effect adopted was a hedging strategy in which ties with Washington would be maintained while at the same time a new power base in Europe was sought." Even so, Kennedy assured Macmillan "that relations between the United States and the UK would be strengthened not weakened, if the UK moved towards membership."
Douglas-Home and Kennedy (October–November 1963)
Alec Douglas-Home only entered the race to replace the resigning Macmillan as Leader of the Conservative Party after learning from the British ambassador to the United States that the Kennedy administration was uneasy at the prospect of Hailsham being Prime Minister. Douglas-Home, however, would only serve as Prime Minister for a little over a month before Kennedy was assassinated.
In England, Kennedy's assassination in November 1963 caused a profound shock and sadness expressed by many politicians, religious leaders, and luminaries of literature and the arts. The Archbishop of Canterbury led a memorial service at St Paul's Cathedral. Sir Laurence Olivier at the end of his next performance called for a moment of silence, followed by a playing of "The Star Spangled Banner." Prime Minister Douglas-Home led parliamentary tributes to Kennedy, whom he called, "the most loyal and faithful of allies." Douglas-Home was visibly upset during his remarks, as he was truly saddened by Kennedy's death. He had liked Kennedy, and had begun to establish a positive working relationship with him.
After his assassination, the British government sought approval to build a memorial to President Kennedy, in part to demonstrate the strength of the Special Relationship. However, the weak popular response to its ambitious fundraising campaign was a surprise, and suggested a grassroots opposition to the late president, his policies and the United States.
Douglas-Home and Johnson (November 1963–October 1964)
Douglas-Home had a far more terse relationship with Kennedy's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson. Douglas-Home failed to develop a good relationship with Lyndon Johnson. Their governments had a serious disagreement on the question of British trade with Cuba.
Douglas' Conservative Party lost the 1964 general election, thus he lost his position as Prime Minister. He had only served as Prime Minister for 363 days, the U.K.'s second shortest premiership of the twentieth century. Despite its unusual brevity (and due to the assassination of Kennedy), Douglas-Home's tenure had overlapped with two US presidencies.
Wilson and Johnson (October 1964–January 1969)
Prime Minister Harold Wilson recast the alliance as a "close relationship", but neither he nor President Lyndon B. Johnson had any direct experience of foreign policy, and Wilson's attempt to mediate in Vietnam, where the United Kingdom was co-chairman with the Soviet Union of the Geneva Conference, was unwelcome to the president. "I won't tell you how to run Malaysia and you don't tell us how to run Vietnam," Johnson snapped in 1965. However, relations were sustained by U.S. recognition that Wilson was being criticised at home by his neutralist Labour left for not condemning American involvement in the war.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara asked Britain to send troops to Vietnam as 'the unwritten terms of the Special Relationship', Wilson agreed to help in many ways but refused to commit regular forces, only special forces instructors. Australia and New Zealand did commit regular forces to Vietnam.
The Johnson administration's support for IMF loans delayed devaluation of sterling until 1967. The United Kingdom's subsequent withdrawal from the Persian Gulf and East Asia surprised Washington, where it was strongly opposed because British forces were valued for their contribution. In retrospect Wilson's moves to scale back Britain's global commitments and correct its balance of payments contrasted with Johnson's overexertions which accelerated the United States' relative economic and military decline.
Wilson and Nixon (January 1969–June 1970)
By the time Richard Nixon had taken office, many issues of tension between the two nations had been resolved. This allowed for the Special Relationship to blossom.
In a speech delivered on January 27, 1970 at a state dinner welcoming the Prime Minister in his visit to the United States Nixon said,
Mr. Prime Minister, I am delighted to welcome you here today as an old friend; as an old friend not only in government, but as an old friend personally. I noted from reading the background, that this is your 21st visit to the United States, and your seventh visit as Prime Minister of your government.
And I noted, too, in looking at the relationship that we have had since I assumed office a year ago, that we met twice in London, once in February, again in August; that we have had a great deal of correspondence; we have talked several times on the telephone. But what is even more important is the substance of those conversations. The substance did not involve differences between your country and ours. The substance of those conversations was with regard to the great issues in which we have a common interest and a common purpose, the development of peace in the world, progress for your people, for our people, for all people. This is the way it should be. This is the way we both want it. And it is an indication of the way to the future.
Winston Churchill once said on one of his visits to this country that, if we are together, nothing is impossible. Perhaps in saying that nothing is impossible, that was an exaggeration. But it can be said today--we are together, and being together, a great deal is possible. And I am sure that our talks will make some of those things possible.
Heath and Nixon (June 1970–March 1974)
A Europeanist, Prime Minister Edward Heath preferred to speak of a "'natural relationship', based on shared culture and heritage", and stressed that the Special Relationship was "not part of his own vocabulary".
The Heath-Nixon era was dominated by the United Kingdom's 1973 entry into the European Economic Community (EEC). Although the two leaders' 1971 Bermuda communiqué restated that entry served the interests of the Atlantic Alliance, American observers voiced concern that the British government's membership would impair its role as an honest broker, and that, because of the European goal of political union, the Special Relationship would only survive if it included the whole Community.
Critics accused President Nixon of impeding the EEC's inclusion in the Special Relationship by his economic policy, which dismantled the postwar international monetary system and sought to force open European markets for US exports. Detractors also slated the personal relationship at the top as "decidedly less than special"; Prime Minister Edward Heath, it was alleged, "hardly dared put through a phone call to Richard Nixon for fear of offending his new Common Market partners."
The Special Relationship was "soured" during the Arab–Israeli War of 1973 when Nixon failed to inform Heath that US forces had been put on DEFCON 3 in a worldwide standoff with the Soviet Union, and US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger misled the British ambassador over the nuclear alert. Heath, who learned about the alert only from press reports hours later, confessed: "I have found considerable alarm as to what use the Americans would have been able to make of their forces here without in any way consulting us or considering the British interests." The incident marked "a low ebb" in the Special Relationship.
Wilson and Nixon (March 1974–August 1974)
Wilson and Nixon once again concurrently served as leaders of the two nations for a six-month period spanning from the start of Wilson's second tenure as Prime Minister until Nixon's resignation. Wilson held Nixon in high regards. After he left office himself, Wilson praised Nixon as America's "most able" president.
Wilson and Ford (August 1974–April 1976)
Gerald Ford became president after Nixon's resignation. In a toast to Wilson at a January 1975 state dinner, Ford remarked,
It gives me a very great deal of pleasure to welcome you again to the United States. You are no stranger, of course, to this city and to this house. Your visits here over the years as a staunch ally and a steadfast friend are continuing evidence of the excellence of the ties between our countries and our people.
You, Mr. Prime Minister, are the honored leader of one of America's truest allies and oldest friends. Any student of American history and American culture knows how significant is our common heritage. We have actually continued to share a wonderful common history.
Americans can never forget how the very roots of our democratic political system and of our concepts of liberty and government are to be found in Britain.
Over the years, Britain and the United States have stood together as trusting friends and allies to defend the cause of freedom on a worldwide basis. Today, the North Atlantic Alliance remains the cornerstone of our common defense.
Callaghan and Ford (April 1976–January 1977)
In April 1976, James Callaghan became Prime Minister after Wilson resigned the office. While President Ford never visited the United Kingdom during his presidency, the British government saw the U.S. bicentennial in 1976 as an occasion to celebrate the Special Relationship. Political leaders and guests from both sides of the Atlantic gathered in May at Westminster Hall to mark the American Declaration of Independence of 1776. Prime Minister Callaghan presented a visiting Congressional delegation with a gold-embossed reproduction of the Magna Carta, symbolising the common heritage of the two nations. British historian Esmond Wright noted "a vast amount of popular identification with the American story". A year of cultural exchanges and exhibitions culminated in July in a state visit to the United States by the Queen.
Ford lost the 1976 election. Consequentially, his presidency ended in January 1977.
Callaghan and Carter (January 1977–May 1979)
After defeating the incumbent Gerald Ford in the 1976 election, Jimmy Carter was sworn-in as President of the United States in January 1977. Ties between Callaghan and Carter were cordial but, with both left-of-centre governments being preoccupied with economic malaise, diplomatic contacts remained low key. US officials characterised relations in 1978 as "extremely good", with the main disagreement being over trans-Atlantic air routes.
The economic malaise that Callaghan was facing at home developed into the "Winter of Discontent", which ultimately led to Callaghan's Labour Party losing the May 1979 general election, thus ending his tenure as Prime Minister.
Thatcher and Carter (May 1979–January 1981)
Conservative Party leader Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister after her party won the general election in 1979. Relations between President Carter and Prime Minister Thatcher during the year-and-a-half overlap of their leadership have often been seen as relatively cold, especially when contrasted with the kinship that Thatcher would subsequently develop with Carter's successor Ronald Reagan. However, Carter's relationship with Thatcher never reached the levels of strain that Reagan's relationship would in the midst of the Falklands War.
Thatcher and Carter had clear differences in their political ideology. They both occupied relatively opposing ends of the political spectrum. By the time she had become Prime Minister, Thatcher had already met Carter on two previous occasions. Both of these encounters had initially left Carter with a negative impression of her. However, his opinion of Thatcher had reportedly become more placid by the time she was elected Prime Minister.
Despite the tensions between the two, historian Chris Collins (of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation) has stated, "Carter is somebody she worked hard to get along with. She had considerable success at it. Had Carter lasted two terms we might be writing about the surprising amount of common ground between the two."
Carter congratulated Thatcher in a phone call after her party's victory in the general election (which elevated her to the office of Prime Minister), stating that the United States would, "look forward to working with you on an official basis." However, his congratulations was delivered with an audibly unenthusiastic tone. In her first full letter to Carter, Thatcher voiced her assurance of full support in the ratification of the SALT II nuclear arms treaty writing, "We will do all we can to assist you".
Shortly after her election, following her first meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (which she would describe as, "profoundly disheartening"), Thatcher expressed her concerns to Carter about the issue of Israeli settlements stating, "I emphasized to Mr Begin the danger which continued expansion of Israeli settlements represents to the autonomy negotiations… but he will not listen and even resents the subject of settlements being raised at all."
Both leaders were mutually facing great pressures during the overlap of their tenures as a national leader. Both of their nations were experiencing economic crisis due to the early 1980s recession. In addition, there was international upheaval in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Among the areas of turmoil were Afghanistan (due to the Soviet–Afghan War) and Iran (where Carter was facing a hostage crisis following the Iranian Revolution).
Both Carter and Thatcher condemned the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. They expressed concern to each other that other European nations were being too soft towards the Russians. Carter hoped that she could persuade other European nations to condemn the invasion. However, with a particularly tumultuous economic situation at home, and with most NATO members reluctant to cut trade ties with the USSR, Thatcher would only provide very weak support to Carter's efforts to punish the USSR through economic sanctions.
Thatcher was concerned that Carter was naive about Soviet relations. Nevertheless, Thatcher played a (perhaps pivotal) role in fulfilling Carter's desire for the U.N. adoption of a resolution demanding the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Thatcher also encouraged British athletes to participate in the boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, which Carter initiated in response to the invasion. However, Thatcher ultimately gave the country's Olympic Committee and individual athletes the choice to decide whether or not they would boycott the games. The United Kingdom ended up participating in the 1980 games, albeit with a smaller delegation due to individual athletes deciding to participate in boycotting the games.
In their correspondences, Thatcher expressed sympathy to Carter's troubled efforts to resolve the hostage crisis in Iran. However, she outright refused his request for her to decrease the presence of the British embassy in Iran.
Thatcher provided Carter with praise on his handling of the US economy, sending him a letter endorsing his measures in handling economic inflation and in cutting gas consumption during the 1979 energy crisis as, "painful but necessary".
In October 1979 Thatcher wrote Carter, "I share your concern about Cuban and Soviet intentions in the Caribbean. This danger exists more widely in the developing world. It is essential that the Soviet Union should recognise your resolve in this matter. […] I am therefore especially encouraged by your statement that you are accelerating efforts to increase the capability of the United States to use its military forces world wide."
Also October 1979 there was a dispute over Thatcher's government's provision of funding for BBC's external services. In desperation, the BBC contacted United States Ambassador Kingman Brewster Jr. to request that the US government endorse them in their fight against spending cuts. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski discussed this request with the State Department, and even drafted a letter for Carter to send Thatcher. However, Brzezinski ultimately decided against advising Carter to involve himself in the BBC's efforts to lobby against budget cuts.
During her December 1979 visit to the United States, Thatcher chastised Carter for not permitting the sale of arsenal to equip the Royal Ulster Constabulary. During this visit, she delivered a speech in which a lack of warmth towards Carter was evident.
While Thatcher likely favoured her ideological counterpart Ronald Reagan to win the 1980 election (in which he defeated Carter), she was cautious to avoid voicing any such preference, even in private.
Thatcher and Reagan (January 1981–January 1989)
The personal friendship between President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher united them as "ideological soul-mates". They shared a commitment to the philosophy of the free market, low taxes, limited government, and a strong defence; they rejected détente and were determined to win the Cold War with the Soviet Union. However, they did have disagreements on internal social policies such as the AIDS epidemic and abortion. Thatcher summed up her understanding of the Special Relationship at her first meeting with Reagan as president in 1981: "Your problems will be our problems and when you look for friends we shall be there."
Celebrating the 200th anniversary of diplomatic relations in 1985, Thatcher enthused:
Reagan, in turn, acknowledged:
The United States and the United Kingdom are bound together by inseparable ties of ancient history and present friendship ... There's been something very special about the friendships between the leaders of our two countries. And may I say to my friend the Prime Minister, I'd like to add two more names to this list of affection: Thatcher and Reagan.
In 1982, Thatcher and Reagan reached an agreement to replace the British Polaris fleet with a force equipped with US-supplied Trident missiles. The confidence between the two principals appeared momentarily strained by Reagan's belated support in the Falklands War, but this was more than countered by the Anglophile American Defense Secretary, Caspar Weinberger, who provided strong support in intelligence and munitions. It has since been revealed that while publicly claiming neutrality in the dispute between Argentina and Britain over the Falkland Islands, Reagan had approved a top-secret plan to loan a U.S. aircraft carrier to the British in the event that Argentine forces managed to sink one of the British carriers, and had told Weinberger to: "Give Maggie everything she needs to get on with it."
A July 2012 article by USNI News of the United States Naval Institute revealed that the Reagan Administration offered the use of the USS Iwo Jima as a replacement in case either of the two British carriers, the Hermes and Invincible, had been damaged or destroyed during the 1982 Falklands War. This top-secret contingency plan was revealed to the staff of the Naval Institute by John Lehman, the U.S. Secretary of the Navy at the time of the Falklands War, from a speech provided to the Naval Institute that Lehman made in Portsmouth, UK on 26 June 2012. Lehman stated that the loan of the Iwo Jima was made in response to a request from the Royal Navy, and it had the endorsement of U.S. President Ronald Reagan and U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. The actual planning for the Iwo Jima loan-out was done by the staff of the U.S. Second Fleet under the direction of Vice Admiral James Lyons, who confirmed Lehman's revelations with the Naval Institute staff. Contingency planning envisioned American military contractors, likely retired sailors with knowledge of the Iwo Jima's systems, assisting the British in manning the U.S. helicopter carrier during the loan-out. Naval analyst Eric Wertheim compared this arrangement to the Flying Tigers. Significantly, except for U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig, the U.S. Department of State was not included in the loan-out negotiations.
In 1986 Washington asked permission to use British airbases in order to bomb Libya in retaliation for the 1986 West Berlin discotheque bombing by Libyan terrorists that killed two U.S. servicemen. The British cabinet was opposed and Thatcher herself was worried it would lead to widespread attacks on British interests in the Middle East. That did not happen, and instead Libyan terrorism fell off sharply. Furthermore, although British public opinion was highly negative, Britain won widespread praise in the United States at a time when Spain and France had vetoed American requests to fly over their territories.
A more serious disagreement came in 1983 when Washington did not consult with London on the invasion of Grenada. Grenada is part of the Commonwealth of Nations and, following the invasion, it requested help from other Commonwealth members. The intervention was opposed by Commonwealth members including the United Kingdom, Trinidad and Tobago, and Canada, among others.:50 British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a close ally of Reagan on other matters, personally opposed the U.S. invasion. Reagan told her it might happen; she did not know for sure it was coming until three hours before. At 12:30 on the morning of the invasion, Thatcher sent a message to Reagan:
This action will be seen as intervention by a Western country in the internal affairs of a small independent nation, however unattractive its regime. I ask you to consider this in the context of our wider East/West relations and of the fact that we will be having in the next few days to present to our Parliament and people the siting of Cruise missiles in this country. I must ask you to think most carefully about these points. I cannot conceal that I am deeply disturbed by your latest communication. You asked for my advice. I have set it out and hope that even at this late stage you will take it into account before events are irrevocable. (The full text remains classified.)
Reagan told Thatcher before anyone else that the invasion would begin in a few hours, but ignored her complaints. She publicly supported the U.S. action. Reagan phoned to apologize for the miscommunication, and the long-term friendly relationship endured.
In 1986, the British defence secretary Michael Heseltine, a prominent critic of the Special Relationship and a supporter of European integration, resigned over his concern that a takeover of Britain's last helicopter manufacturer by a US firm would harm the British defence industry. Thatcher herself also saw a potential risk to Britain's deterrent and security posed by the Strategic Defense Initiative She was alarmed at Reagan's proposal at the Reykjavík Summit to eliminate nuclear weapons, but was relieved when the proposal failed.
All in all, Britain's needs figured more prominently in American thinking strategy than anyone else. Peter Hennessy, a leading historian, singles out the personal dynamic of "Ron" and "Margaret" in this success:
At crucial moments in the late 1980s, her influence was considerable in shifting perceptions in President Reagan's Washington about the credibility of Mr Gorbachev when he repeatedly asserted his intention to end the Cold War. That mercurial, much-discussed phenomenon, 'the special relationship,' enjoyed an extraordinary revival during the 1980s, with 'slips' like the US invasion of Grenada in 1983 apart, the Thatcher-Reagan partnership outstripping all but the prototype Roosevelt-Churchill duo in its warmth and importance. ('Isn't she marvellous'?' he would purr to his aides even while she berated him down the 'hot line.')
Thatcher and George H.W. Bush (January 1989–November 1990)
In his personal diary, George H. W. Bush wrote that his first impression of Thatcher was she was principled but very difficult. Bush also wrote that Thatcher, "talks all the time when you're in a conversation. It's a one-way street."
Despite having developed a warm relation with Reagan, whom Bush had served under as vice president, Thatcher never developed a similar sense of camaraderie with Bush. At the time that Bush took office in 1989, Thatcher was politically under siege by both political opposition, as well as from forces within her own party.
Bush was anxious to manage the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe in a manner that would produce order and stability. Bush therefore used a 1989 trip to Brussels to demonstrate the heightened attention that his administration planned to allocate towards US-German relations. Thus, rather than giving Thatcher the precedence which Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom were accustomed to receiving from US Presidents, he met with the president of the European Commission first, leaving Thatcher, "cooling her heels". This irritated Thatcher.
In 1989, after Bush proposed a reduction in US troops stationed in Europe, Thatcher lectured Bush on the importance of freedom. Bush came out of this encounter asking, "Why does she have any doubt that we feel this way on this issue?"
In the midst of the invasion of Kuwait, Thatcher advised Bush that, "this is no time to go wobbly."
Thatcher lost her premiership in November 1990. However, to Bush's displeasure, she continued attempting to involve herself in diplomacy between the West and the Soviet Union. Bush took particular offence to a speech Thatcher gave after leaving office in which she claimed that she and Ronald Reagan were responsible for ending the Cold War. Thatcher gave this speech, which snubbed the contributions that others had made, before an audience that included a number of individuals who had contributed to the ending the Cold War, such as Lech Wałęsa and Václav Havel. In reaction to this speech, Helmut Kohl sent Bush a note proclaiming that Thatcher was crazy.
Major and George H.W. Bush (November 1990–January 1993)
As had started becoming apparent in Thatcher's last few years of premiership, the Special Relationship had begun to wane for a time with the passing of the Cold War, despite intensive co-operation in the Gulf War. Thus, while it remained the case that "On almost all issues, Britain and the US are on the same side of the table. You cannot say that for other important allies such as France, Germany or Japan", it was also acknowledged that "The disappearance of a powerful common threat, the Soviet Union, has allowed narrower disputes to emerge and given them greater weight."
Major and Clinton (January 1993–May 1997)
Republican administrations had typically worked well with Conservative governments, and the new Democratic President Bill Clinton intended to maintain the Special Relationship. But he and Major did not prove compatible. The nuclear alliance was weakened when Clinton extended a moratorium on tests in the Nevada desert in 1993, and pressed Major to agree to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. The freeze was described by a British defence minister as "unfortunate and misguided", as it inhibited validation of the "safety, reliability and effectiveness" of fail-safe mechanisms on upgraded warheads for the British Trident II D5 missiles, and potentially the development of a new deterrent for the 21st century, leading Major to consider a return to Pacific Ocean testing. The Ministry of Defence turned to computer simulation.
A genuine crisis in transatlantic relations blew up over Bosnia. London and Paris resisted relaxation of the UN arms embargo, and discouraged U.S. escalation, arguing that arming the Muslims or bombing the Serbs could worsen the bloodshed and endanger their peacekeepers on the ground. US Secretary of State Warren Christopher's campaign to lift the embargo was rebuffed by Major and President Mitterrand in May 1993. After the so-called 'Copenhagen ambush' in June 1993, where Clinton "ganged up" with Chancellor Kohl to rally the European Community against the peacekeeping states, Major was said to be contemplating the death of the Special Relationship. The following month the United States voted at the UN with non-aligned countries against Britain and France over lifting the embargo.
By October 1993, Warren Christopher was bristling that Washington policy makers had been too "Eurocentric", and declared that Western Europe was "no longer the dominant area of the world". The U.S. ambassador to London, Raymond G.H. Seitz, demurred, insisting it was far too early to put a "tombstone" over the Special Relationship. A senior U.S. State Department official described Bosnia in the spring of 1995 as the worst crisis with the British and French since Suez. By the summer, U.S. officials were doubting whether NATO had a future.
The nadir had now been reached, and, along with NATO enlargement and the Croatian offensive in 1995 that opened the way for NATO bombing, the strengthening Clinton-Major relationship was later credited as one of three developments that saved the Western alliance. The president later acknowledged,
John Major carried a lot of water for me and for the alliance over Bosnia. I know he was under a lot of political pressure at home, but he never wavered. He was a truly decent guy who never let me down. We worked really well together, and I got to like him a lot.
A rift opened in a further area. In February 1994, Major refused to answer Clinton's telephone calls for days over his decision to grant Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams a visa to visit the United States to agitate. Adams was listed as a terrorist by London. The U.S. State Department, the CIA, the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI all opposed the move on the grounds that it made the United States look "soft on terrorism" and "could do irreparable damage to the special relationship". Under pressure from Congress, the president hoped the visit would encourage the IRA to renounce violence. While Adams offered nothing new, and violence escalated within weeks, the president later claimed vindication after the IRA ceasefire of August 1994. To the disappointment of the prime minister, Clinton lifted the ban on official contacts and received Adams at the White House on St. Patrick's Day 1995, despite the fact the paramilitaries had not agreed to disarm. The rows over Northern Ireland and the Adams affair reportedly "provoked incandescent Clintonian rages".
In November 1995, Clinton became only the second US president ever to address both Houses of Parliament, but, by the end of Major's premiership, disenchantment with the Special Relationship had deepened to the point where the incoming British ambassador Christopher Meyer banned the "hackneyed phrase" from the embassy.
Blair and Clinton (May 1997–January 2001)
The election of British prime minister Tony Blair in 1997 brought an opportunity to revive what Clinton called the two nations' "unique partnership". At his first meeting with his new partner, the president said: "Over the last fifty years our unbreakable alliance has helped to bring unparalleled peace and prosperity and security. It's an alliance based on shared values and common aspirations." The personal relationship was seen as especially close because the leaders were "kindred spirits" in their domestic agendas. New Labour's Third Way, a moderate social-democratic position, was partly influenced by US New Democratic thinking.
Co-operation in defence and communications still had the potential to embarrass Blair, however, as he strove to balance it with his own leadership role in the European Union (EU). Enforcement of Iraqi no-fly zones and US bombing raids on Iraq dismayed EU partners. As the leading international proponent of humanitarian intervention, the "hawkish" Blair "bullied" Clinton to back diplomacy with force in Kosovo in 1999, pushing for deployment of ground troops to persuade the president "to do whatever was necessary" to win.
Blair and George W. Bush (January 2001–June 2007)
The personal diplomacy of Blair and Clinton's successor, US president George W. Bush in 2001, further served to highlight the Special Relationship. Despite their political differences on non-strategic matters, their shared beliefs and responses to the international situation formed a commonality of purpose following the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. Blair, like Bush, was convinced of the importance of moving against the perceived threat to world peace and international order, famously pledging to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with Bush:
This is not a battle between the United States of America and terrorism, but between the free and democratic world and terrorism. We therefore here in Britain stand shoulder to shoulder with our American friends in this hour of tragedy, and we, like them, will not rest until this evil is driven from our world.
Blair flew to Washington immediately after 9/11 to affirm British solidarity with the United States. In a speech to the United States Congress, nine days after the attacks, Bush declared "America has no truer friend than Great Britain." Blair, one of the few world leaders to attend a presidential speech to Congress as a special guest of the First Lady, received two standing ovations from members of Congress. Blair's presence at the presidential speech remains the only time in U.S. political history that a foreign leader was in attendance at an emergency joint session of the U.S. Congress, a testimony to the strength of the U.S.–U.K. alliance under the two leaders. Following that speech, Blair embarked on two months of diplomacy, rallying international support for military action. The BBC calculated that, in total, the prime minister held 54 meetings with world leaders and travelled more than 40,000 miles (64,000 km).
Blair's leadership role in the Iraq War helped him to sustain a strong relationship with Bush through to the end of his time as prime minister, but it was unpopular within his own party and lowered his public approval ratings. Some of the British Press called Blair "Bush's poodle." It also alienated some of his European partners, including the leaders of France and Germany. Russian popular artist Mikhail Nikolayevich Zadornov mused that "the position adopted by Britain towards America in the context of the Iraq War would be officially introduced into Kama Sutra." Blair felt he could defend his close personal relationship with Bush by claiming it had brought progress in the Middle East peace process, aid for Africa and climate-change diplomacy. However, it was not with Bush but with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that Blair ultimately succeeded in setting up a carbon-trading market, "creating a model other states will follow".
The 2006 Lebanon War also exposed some minor differences in attitudes over the Middle East. The strong support offered by Blair and the Bush administration to Israel was not wholeheartedly shared by the British cabinet or the British public. On 27 July, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett criticised the United States for "ignoring procedure" when using Prestwick Airport as a stop-off point for delivering laser-guided bombs to Israel.
Brown and George W. Bush (June 2007–January 2009)
Although British Prime Minister Gordon Brown stated his support for the United States on assuming office in 2007, he appointed ministers to the Foreign Office who had been critical of aspects of the relationship or of recent US policy. A Whitehall source said: "It will be more businesslike now, with less emphasis on the meeting of personal visions you had with Bush and Blair." British policy was that the relationship with the United States remained the United Kingdom's "most important bilateral relationship".
Brown and Obama (January 2009–May 2010)
Prior to his election as US president in 2008, Barack Obama, suggesting that Blair and Britain had been let down by the Bush administration, declared: "We have a chance to recalibrate the relationship and for the United Kingdom to work with America as a full partner."
On meeting Brown as president for the first time in March 2009, Obama reaffirmed that "Great Britain is one of our closest and strongest allies and there is a link and bond there that will not break... This notion that somehow there is any lessening of that special relationship is misguided... The relationship is not only special and strong but will only get stronger as time goes on." Commentators, however, noted that the recurring use of "special partnership" by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs could be signaling an effort to recast terms.
The Special Relationship was also reported to be "strained" after a senior U.S. State Department official criticised a British decision to talk to the political wing of Hezbollah, complaining that the United States had not been properly informed. The protest came after the Obama administration had said it was prepared to talk to Hamas and at the same time as it was making overtures to Syria and Iran. A senior Foreign Office official responded: "This should not have come as a shock to any official who might have been in the previous administration and is now in the current one."
In June 2009 the special relationship was reported to have "taken another hit" after the British government was said to be "angry" over the failure of the US to seek its approval before negotiating with Bermuda over the resettlement to the British overseas territory of four ex-Guantanamo Bay inmates wanted by the People's Republic of China. A Foreign Office spokesman said: 'It's something that we should have been consulted about.' Asked whether the men might be sent back to Cuba, he replied: "We are looking into all possible next steps." The move prompted an urgent security assessment by the British government. Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague demanded an explanation from the incumbent, David Miliband, as comparisons were drawn with his previous embarrassment over the US use of Diego Garcia for extraordinary rendition without British knowledge, with one commentator describing the affair as "a wake-up call" and "the latest example of American governments ignoring Britain when it comes to US interests in British territories abroad".
In August 2009, the Special Relationship was again reported to have "taken another blow" with the release on compassionate grounds of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie Bombing. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said "it was absolutely wrong to release Abdelbaset al-Megrahi", adding "We are still encouraging the Scottish authorities not to do so and hope they will not". Obama also commented that the release of al-Megrahi was a "mistake" and "highly objectionable".
In March 2010, Hillary Clinton's support for Argentina's call for negotiations over the Falkland Islands triggered a series of diplomatic protests from Britain and renewed public scepticism about the value of the Special Relationship. The British government rejected Clinton's offer of mediation after renewed tensions with Argentina were triggered by a British decision to drill for oil near the Falkland Islands. The British government's long-standing position was that the Falklands were British territory, with all that this implied regarding the legitimacy of British commercial activities within its boundaries. British officials were therefore irritated by the implication that sovereignty was negotiable.
Later that month, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons suggested that the British government should be "less deferential" towards the United States and focus relations more on British interests. According to Committee Chair Mike Gapes, "The UK and US have a close and valuable relationship not only in terms of intelligence and security but also in terms of our profound and historic cultural and trading links and commitment to freedom, democracy and the rule of law. But 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." In April 2010, the Church of England added its voice to the call for a more balanced relationship between Britain and the United States.
Cameron and Obama (May 2010–July 2016)
On David Cameron being elected as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom after coalition talks between his Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats concluded on 11 May 2010, President Obama was the first foreign leader to offer his congratulations. Following the conversation Obama said:
As I told the prime minister, the United States has no closer friend and ally than the United Kingdom, and I reiterated my deep and personal commitment to the special relationship between our two countries – a bond that has endured for generations and across party lines.
Foreign Secretary William Hague responded to the President's overture by making Washington his first port of call, commenting: "We're very happy to accept that description and to agree with that description. The United States is without doubt the most important ally of the United Kingdom." Meeting Hillary Clinton, Hague hailed the Special Relationship as "an unbreakable alliance", and added: "It's not a backward-looking or nostalgic relationship. It is one looking to the future from combating violent extremism to addressing poverty and conflict around the world." Both governments confirmed their joint commitment to the war in Afghanistan and their opposition to Iran's nuclear programme.
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 sparked a media firestorm against BP in the United States. The Christian Science Monitor observed that a "rhetorical prickliness" had come about from escalating Obama administration criticism of BP—straining the Special Relationship—particularly the repeated use of the term "British Petroleum" even though the business no longer uses that name. Cameron stated that he did not want to make the president's toughness on BP a U.S.–U.K. issue, and noted that the company was balanced in terms of the number of its American and British shareholders. The validity of the Special Relationship was put in question as a result of the "aggressive rhetoric".
On 20 July, Cameron met with Obama during his first visit to the United States as prime minister. The two expressed unity in a wide range of issues, including the war in Afghanistan. During the meeting, Obama stated, "We can never say it enough. The United States and the United Kingdom enjoy a truly special relationship," then going on to say, "We celebrate a common heritage. We cherish common values. ... (And) above all, our alliance thrives because it advances our common interests." Cameron stated in an interview during the trip that he wanted to build a strong relationship with the United States, Britain's "oldest and best ally." This is in fact a historical error, as the Anglo–Portuguese Alliance is the oldest alliance that is still in force. Cameron further stated that, "from the times I've met Barack Obama before, we do have very, very close – allegiances and very close positions on all the key issues, whether that is Afghanistan or Middle East peace process or Iran. Our interests are aligned and we've got to make this partnership work."
Cameron has tried to downplay the idealism of the Special Relationship and called for an end to the British fixation on the status of the relationship, stating that it's a natural and mutually beneficial relationship. He said, "...I am unapologetically pro-America. But I am not some idealistic dreamer about the special relationship. I care about the depth of our partnership, not the length of our phone calls. I hope that in the coming years we can focus on the substance, not endlessly fret about the form."
In January 2011, during a White House meeting with the President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, Obama declared: "We don't have a stronger friend and stronger ally than Nicolas Sarkozy, and the French people", a statement which triggered outcry in the United Kingdom. In May, however, Obama became the fourth U.S. President to make a state visit to the U.K. For the keynote speech, he became the third U.S. President to address both Houses of Parliament after Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Considered a rare privilege for a foreign leader, only Reagan, Clinton, Charles de Gaulle, Nelson Mandela, Pope Benedict XVI and Nicolas Sarkozy had done so since the Second World War. (George W. Bush was invited to address Parliament in 2003, but declined.)
In 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry remarked "The relationship between the US and UK has often been described as special or essential and it has been described thus simply because it is. It was before a vote the other day in Parliament and it will be for long after that vote." This comment was brought about after the parliament vote to not conduct military strikes against Syria. William Hague replied: "So the United Kingdom will continue to work closely with the United States, taking a highly active role in addressing the Syria crisis and working with our closest ally over the coming weeks and months."
In 2015, Cameron stated that Obama calls him "bro" and described the "special relationship" between Washington and Westminster as "stronger than it has ever been". In March 2016, Obama criticised the British PM for becoming "distracted" over the intervention in Libya, a criticism that was also aimed at the French President. A National Security Council spokesman sent an unsolicited email to the BBC limiting the damage done by stating that "Prime Minister David Cameron has been as close a partner as the president has had."
May and Obama (July 2016–January 2017)
The short period of relations between post-Brexit referendum newly elected Theresa May and Obama administration was met with diplomatic hostility over John Kerry's criticism of Israel in a speech. Obama maintained his stance that the UK would be a low priority for US trade talks post-Brexit, and that the UK would be at "the back of the queue".
May chose Boris Johnson to serve as her Foreign Secretary. Johnson had written an op-ed which made mention of Obama's Kenyan heritage in a manner which critics accused of being racist. He had also previously written an op-ed about Obama's potential successor, Hillary Clinton, which made derisive statements that had been criticized as sexist. A senior official in the US government suggested that Johnson's appointment would push the US further towards ties with Germany at the expense of the Special Relationship with the UK.
Ultimately, before he left office, Obama stated that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had been his "closest international partner" throughout his tenure as President. While Obama might have had a fractious relationship with Prime Minister May, he reportedly maintained a strong cordial relationship with members of the British royal family.
May and Trump (January 2017–present)
Following the election of Donald Trump, the British government has sought to establish a close alliance with the Trump administration, which it has referred to as a revival of the historical "special relationship". May's efforts to closely associate herself with Trump have proved to be strongly controversial in the United Kingdom.
Theresa May was the first world leader to meet with President Trump following his inauguration. The meeting focused on post-Brexit trade, defence and security.
Trump has reversed the stance of the Obama administration of moving the UK to the "back of queue" in regards to trade negotiations, as Trump prefers bilateral trade agreements over multilateral trade agreements, such as the proposed TTIP.
Theresa May was criticized in the United Kingdom by members of all major parties, including her own, for refusing to condemn Donald Trump's Executive Order 13769, referred to as the "Muslim ban" in the U.K., as well as for inviting Trump to a state visit with Queen Elizabeth II. The honor of a state visit had not traditionally been extended so early in a presidency, however May did so in hopes of fostering a stronger trade relationship with the United States before the Brexit deadline.
More than 1.8 million signed an official parliamentary e-petition which said that "Donald Trump's well documented misogyny and vulgarity disqualifies him from being received by Her Majesty the Queen or the Prince of Wales," and Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party said in Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) that Trump should not be welcomed to Britain "while he abuses our shared values with his shameful Muslim ban and attacks on refugees' and women's rights" and said that Trump should be banned from the U.K. until his travel ban is lifted.
Baroness Warsi, former chair of the Conservatives, accused May of "bowing down" to Trump, who she described as "a man who has no respect for women, disdain for minorities, little value for LGBT communities, no compassion clearly for the vulnerable and whose policies are rooted in divisive rhetoric." London Mayor Sadiq Khan and the Conservative leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, also called for the visit to be cancelled. Trump's invitation was later downgraded to a "working visit", in which he would not be meeting with the Queen.
Despite May's efforts to establish a beneficial working relationship with Trump, their relationship has been described as "dysfunctional". It has been reported that, in their phone calls, Trump has made a habit of interrupting May.
On the morning of November 29, 2017, Trump retweeted an anti-Muslim post from the far-right group Britain First. This received strong backlash from leaders across the British political spectrum, and was condemned by a spokesperson of May's, who said that it was, "wrong of the president to have done this." Trump rebutted the statement that had been issued by May's office, Tweeting, "Don't focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom, We are doing just fine!" Trump's response to May has been seen by some as damaging to May's agenda, as it weakens the perception of a strong "special relationship" under her leadership. Thus, Trump had undone May's diligent efforts to craft an image of a close relationship with the United States in order to ease the passage of Brexit. Some have speculated that Trump's tweet might have even inflicted significant duress, if not long-term damage, to the Special Relationship itself.
The November incident would not prove to be the last time that May had to issue a condemnation of statements made by Trump offending the public of the United Kingdom, as on February 5, 2018 Trump again issued a tweet that upset many in the United Kingdom. Trump, in an attempt to rebuke a push by some in the United States' Democratic Party to implement universal healthcare, Trump tweeted that, "thousands of people are marching in the UK because their U system is going broke and not working". This was a reference the healthcare provided in the United Kingdom by the National Health Service. Trump's tweets were factually inaccurate in their characterization of the United Kingdom's health system. mischaracterizing reasons behind recent protests in the United Kingdom (which had not been protesting against the universal healthcare system, but rather been protesting for an improvement in the services it offers). Trump's attack on the United Kingdom's healthcare system is believed to have placed further strain on his relationship with May, who responded by declaring her pride in the United Kingdom's health system.
January 29, 2018, in a televised interview with Piers Morgan, Trump spoke critically of May's approach to Brexit negotiations, adding greater strain to his relationship with her.
At the 2018 G7 summit, Trump repeatedly made apparent slights towards May. Despite this, May insisted that her relationship with Trump remained strong. At the 2018 Brussels summit, May sought to curry favor with Trump by supporting his complaints about other NATO members failing to meet certain levels of defense funding.
Following the Brussels summit, Trump made his first presidential visit to the United Kingdom. His visit came at period in the United Kingdom's political climate which had been preceded by significant tumult for May. She was receiving significant resistance to her plans for a "soft Brexit", which had resulted several major resignations amongst her cabinet ministers. During his visit, in an interview with The Sun, Trump spoke critically of May's handling of Brexit negotiations. He stated that May's proposal would likely kill the prospects of a US-UK trade agreement. These comments inflicted further damage on an already-embattled May. Trump also praised Boris Johnson (a political rival of May's who had recently resigned from her cabinet), going as far to suggest that Johnson would make a good prime minister. Vanity Fair considered that the "special relationship" had "devolved into a greasy dumpster fire" under May's premiership.
It has been noted that secret defence and intelligence links "that [have] minimal impact on ordinary people [play] a disproportionate role in the transatlantic friendship", and perspectives on the Special Relationship differ.
A 1942 Gallup poll conducted after Pearl Harbor, before the arrival of U.S. troops and Churchill's heavy promotion of the Special Relationship, showed wartime ally Russia was still more popular than the United States among 62% of Britons. However, only 6% had ever visited the United States and only 35% knew any Americans personally.
In 1969, the United States was tied with the Commonwealth as the most important overseas connection for the British public, while Europe came in a distant third. By 1984, after a decade in the Common Market, Britons chose Europe as being most important to them.
British opinion polls from the Cold War revealed ambivalent feelings towards the United States. Margaret Thatcher's 1979 agreement to base US cruise missiles in Britain was approved of by only 36% of Britons, and the number with little or no trust in the ability of the US to deal wisely with world affairs had soared from 38% in 1977 to 74% in 1984, by which time 49% wanted US nuclear bases in Britain removed, and 50% would have sent US-controlled cruise missiles back to the United States. At the same time, 59% of Britons supported their own country's nuclear deterrent, with 60% believing Britain should rely on both nuclear and conventional weapons, and 66% opposing unilateral nuclear disarmament. 53% of Britons opposed dismantling the Royal Navy's Polaris submarines. 70% of Britons still considered Americans to be very or fairly trustworthy, and in case of war the United States was the ally trusted overwhelmingly to come to Britain's aid, and to risk its own security for the sake of Britain. The United States and Britain were also the two countries most alike in basic values such as willingness to fight for their country and the importance of freedom.
In 1986, 71% of Britons, questioned in a Mori poll the day after Ronald Reagan's bombing of Libya, disagreed with Thatcher's decision to allow the use of RAF bases, while two thirds in a Gallup survey opposed the bombing itself, the reverse of US opinion.
The United Kingdom's all-time low poll rating in the United States came in 1994, during the split over Bosnia, when 56% of Americans interviewed considered Britons to be close allies.
In a 1997 Harris poll published after Tony Blair's election, 63% of people in the United States viewed Britain as a close ally, up by one percent from 1996, 'confirming that the long-running "special relationship" with America's transatlantic cousins is still alive and well'. Britain came second behind its colonial offshoot Canada, on 73%, while another offshoot, Australia, came third, on 48%. Popular awareness of the historical link was fading in the parent country, however. In a 1997 Gallup poll, while 60% of the British public said they regretted the end of Empire and 70% expressed pride in the imperial past, 53% wrongly supposed that the United States had never been a British possession.
In 1998, 61% of Britons polled by ICM said they believed they had more in common with US citizens than they did with the rest of Europe. 64% disagreed with the sentence 'Britain does what the US government tells us to do.' A majority also backed Blair's support of Bill Clinton's strategy on Iraq, 42% saying action should be taken to topple Saddam Hussein, with 24% favouring diplomatic action, and a further 24%, military action. A majority of Britons aged 24 and over said they did not like Blair supporting Clinton over the Lewinsky scandal.
A 2006 poll of the US public showed that the United Kingdom, as an 'ally in the war on terror' was viewed more positively than any other country. 76% of the US people polled viewed the British as an 'ally in the War on Terror' according to Rasmussen Reports. According to Harris Interactive, 74% of Americans viewed Great Britain as a 'close ally in the war in Iraq', well ahead of next-ranked Canada at 48%.
A June 2006 poll by Populus for The Times showed that the number of Britons agreeing that 'it is important for Britain's long-term security that we have a close and special relationship with America' had fallen to 58% (from 71% in April), and that 65% believed that 'Britain's future lies more with Europe than America.' Only 44%, however, agreed that 'America is a force for good in the world.' A later poll during the Israel-Lebanon conflict found that 63% of Britons felt that the United Kingdom was tied too closely to the United States. A 2008 poll by The Economist showed that Britons' views differed considerably from Americans' views when asked about the topics of religion, values, and national interest. The Economist remarked:
For many Britons, steeped in the lore of how English-speaking democracies rallied around Britain in the second world war, [the special relationship] is something to cherish. For Winston Churchill, [...] it was a bond forged in battle. On the eve of the war in Iraq, as Britain prepared to fight alongside America, Tony Blair spoke of the 'blood price' that Britain should be prepared to pay in order to sustain the relationship.
In America, it is not nearly as emotionally charged. Indeed American politicians are promiscuous with the term, trumpeting their 'special relationships' with Israel, Germany and South Korea, among others. 'Mention the special relationship to Americans and they say yes, it's a really special relationship,' notes sardonically Sir Christopher Meyer, a former British ambassador to Washington.
In January 2010 a Leflein poll conducted for Atlantic Bridge found that 57% of people in the US considered the special relationship with Britain to be the world's most important bilateral partnership, with 2% disagreeing. 60% of people in the US regarded Britain as the country most likely to support the United States in a crisis, while Canada came second on 24%, and Australia third on 4%.
In May 2010, a poll conducted in the UK by YouGov revealed that 66% of those surveyed held a favourable view of the US and 62% agreed with the assertion that America is Britain's most important ally. However, the survey also revealed that 85% of British citizens believe that the UK has little or no influence on American policies, and that 62% think that America does not consider British interests. Another poll by YouGov in September 2016 revealed that 57% still believed in the special relationship, whilst 37% did not.
Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, senior British figures criticized the refusal of the US Government to heed British advice regarding post-war plans for Iraq, specifically the Coalition Provisional Authority's de-Ba'athification policy and the critical importance of preventing the power vacuum in which the insurgency subsequently developed. British defence secretary Geoff Hoon later stated that the United Kingdom 'lost the argument' with the Bush administration over rebuilding Iraq.
Assurances made by the United States to the United Kingdom that 'extraordinary rendition' flights had never landed on British territory were later shown to be false when official US records proved that such flights had landed at Diego Garcia repeatedly. The revelation was an embarrassment for British foreign secretary David Miliband, who apologised to Parliament.
In 2003, the United States pressed the United Kingdom to agree to an extradition treaty which, proponents claimed, allowed for equal extradition requirements between the two countries. Critics argued that the United Kingdom was obligated to make a strong prima facie case to US courts before extradition would be granted, and that, by contrast, extradition from the United Kingdom to the United States was a matter of administrative decision alone, without prima facie evidence. This had been implemented as an anti-terrorist measure in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks. Very soon, however, it was being used by the United States to extradite and prosecute a number of high-profile London businessmen (e.g., the Natwest Three and Ian Norris) on fraud charges. Contrasts have been drawn with the United States' harboring of Provisional IRA terrorists in the 1970s through to the 1990s and repeated refusals to extradite them to the UK.
On 30 September 2006, the US Senate unanimously ratified the 2003 treaty. Ratification had been slowed by complaints from some Irish-American groups that the treaty would create new legal jeopardy for US citizens who opposed British policy in Northern Ireland. The Spectator condemned the three-year delay as 'an appalling breach in a long-treasured relationship'.
The United States also refused to accede to another priority of the Blair government, the treaty setting-up the International Criminal Court.
Trade disputes and attendant job fears have sometimes strained the Special Relationship. The United States has been accused of pursuing an aggressive trade policy, using or ignoring WTO rules; the aspects of this causing most difficulty to the United Kingdom have been a successful challenge to the protection of small family banana farmers in the West Indies from large US corporations such as the American Financial Group, and high tariffs on British steel products. In 2002, Blair denounced Bush's imposition of tariffs on steel as 'unacceptable, unjustified and wrong', but although Britain's biggest steelmaker, Corus, called for protection from dumping by developing nations, the Confederation of British Industry urged the government not to start a 'tit-for-tat'.
In popular culture
Over the decades, the varying Zeitgeist of the Special Relationship has been a feature or context or subtext for countless works of art and phenomena in popular culture as varied as A Matter of Life and Death (1946) (released as Stairway to Heaven in the U.S.), the British Invasion of popular music beginning in the early 1960s, and the unusual intergenerational pairing of English musician David Bowie and American singer Bing Crosby performing "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy" in 1977. In the televised science fiction of the 1990s, the Centauri (Babylon 5) are for plot purposes somewhat analogous to the British Empire. In the early 2000s, cultural exchange and mutual admiration between the US and UK continues, with Masterpiece Theater on PBS, including the hit series Poldark (2015 TV series), and in Hollywood, with WWII-themed films such as "Churchill" (2017), "The Darkest Hour" (2017), and "Dunkirk" (2017).
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Anglo-American relations.|
- June 2002, Policy Review, The State of the Special Relationship
- November 2006, The Times, State Department Official disparages the relationship
- May 2007, Professor Stephen Haseler (Global Policy Institute, London Metropolitan University) has written a book examining the history of the special relationship from a British perspective entitled Sidekick: Bulldog to Lapdog, British Global Strategy from Churchill to Blair
- February 2009, The Guardian, Presidents and prime ministers: a look back at previous first meetings of US and UK leaders