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Effect of Brexit on the 'Special Relationship' Between the UK and US

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 3828 words Published: 5th Feb 2019

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‘The UK cannot retain its “special relationship” with the United States whilst being semi-detached from the European Union’

“Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm” ‘Sir Winston Churchill’[1]

The United Kingdom (UK) has no closer ally than the United States (US), and the British foreign policy underlines our close coordination with the United States.  These close relations were considerably strengthened by the United Kingdom’s alliance with the US during both World Wars, in the Korean conflict, in the Persian Gulf War, and more recently in Iraq and in Afghanistan conflicts, additionally through its part as a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.  This has contributed to forming a special relationship with the US.  Within this essay the ‘special relationship’ is defined as a political or technical term between the UK and the United States governments[2].  Semi dethatched is defined as no longer being a member of the European Union (EU) following referendum.  During 2016 a major event was the referendum in the UK on 23 June to withdraw from the European Union, which resulted in the British population voting to leave the EU.  Following the announcement it posed a number of uncertainties, one of these was our ‘Special Relationship’ with the US.

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In answering the question of the UK cannot retain its “Special Relationship” with the US whilst being semi-detached from the EU’ there are 3 key areas that this essay will look at are political, military and economy.  I have considered these points because, the two countries continue to have a number of fundamental common interests in global political aspects, economic stability, military cohesion and with these structures they are able to cooperate closely as permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.  This essay will consider the implications on both sides of the Atlantic and argue that the UK can retain its ”special relationship’ with the US whilst being semi detached from the EU, others may feel this is a failure by leaving the EU.

Is the “Special Relationship” amid Britain and the US fundamentally damaged? It’s an old alliance based on shared histories and values, one that has developed the cornerstone of British foreign policy after two world wars[3].  The element of the special relationship is nothing new, it has been well established since Winston Churchill coined the phrase “special relationship” during a lecture tour of American universities in 1945 and his words are certainly resonate today.  The specialness of the two countries’ relationship has endured, although it could be seen as cool at times, this has been particularly difficult when the personal relationship between the US President and the British Prime Minster wasn’t so strong.  Whilst the degree of closeness between the nations is and has been largely determined by judgments of joint political, trade subsidies, military cohesion and the personal factor have continued to have a strong influence.  Some may say that the imbalance between the relative power between the two nations, may have possibly been one-sided and occasionally the UK has been made to appear rather subservient.  In the eyes of both nations, this was evident when the then Prime Minister Tony Blair was seen to freely take the acceptance of the Bush regimes’ polices over Iraq. This resulted in a certain amount of criticism of the British government in the UK and many felt that Britain is tied to closely to the US.  In 2016 there was two main political events that were headline news, the first being Britain voted to leave the EU in June after 43 years of increasingly ambivalent membership was greeted with a mixture of defiance, fear and jubilation across the continent. The second big political event being on the early hours on 9 November, when Donald Trump took to the stage in New York to declare his victory as the new President of the US.  Some said a political novice, however Mr Trump along the way had defeated the most experienced presidential candidate in decades.  The public opinion of the special relationship between the UK and US is being further divided amongst both populations; this was evident and highlighted during the Presidential campaign in November 2016.  Throughout the campaign President Trump campaigned on “making America great again’.  In January 2017 Theresa May agreed to “renew the special relationship for this new age” when she met with president Donald Trump.  MPs, including a number of May’s own Conservative party, had expressed their personal reservations about May’s visit given Trump’s previous controversial comments and stances on a range of issues[4].  The UK and the US closely work and frequently consult on foreign policy issues and global problems and share major foreign and security policy objectives. Worryingly as we look to the future there are many unknowns, on both sides of the Atlantic and the UK post Brexit will drive to sustain global influence and without the EU the UK could find themselves largely dependant on the US. The ‘Special relationship’ may well be further tested and could mean a much wider separation than that just of the EU. This no doubt would be devastating for the UK politically, militarily and more importantly financially. This role for the UK as a given global partner to the US is far more likely to survive following the decision to leave the EU than will the UK’s which maybe used as a diplomatic bridge between the US and Europe.

Since 1917, well before the ‘special relationship’ was ever mentioned or quoted by Winston Churchill, the UK and US have collaborated to triumph in two world wars, two Gulf wars, and during the Cold War.  During the 1980s, the mutual support provided by this alliance has developed to the success of unilateral American and British military actions against Libya and Argentina, both of these actions were resisted by other European allies. Throughout the 1980s, the conclusive decade of the Cold War, the elimination of Soviet SS-20 missiles from Europe and the removal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan occurred as a consequence of Anglo-American initiatives that were either opposed or disregarded on the continent.  Ever since the well coordinated terrorist attack in 2001, that made headlines all over the world and became known as 9/11, the UK has remained beside the US in Iraq and Afghanistan as its most right-hand and reliable ally in the war on terror[5].  These joint military efforts have been based upon much of an

arrangement of strategic interests with the similar political and legal culture and values with a world wide view. Also the effective use of intelligence sharing and close practical battlefield collaboration, has been made possible by the shared use of military equipment and technology.  Both the UK and US have agreed that both defence departments, will now continue to search for increased interoperability across the spectrum of military operations.  The US Defence Strategic Guidance[6] and UK Strategic Defence and Security Review[7] recently reached many common conclusions, including the need for increased cooperation in dealing with the threats we face.  We are committed to working together, and with other close allies, wherever possible. The maritime commitment has been strengthened with Secretary Panetta and Secretary Hammond recently signed a Statement of Intent directing the US and Royal Navy to seek ways to better developed aircraft carrier doctrine and maritime power projection capabilities[8].  On the Land environment both the UK and US continue to develop very similar initiatives in order to enhance the already close ground force relationship however increased training opportunities in Europe and exchanges in the US.  As close Allies, the US and UK continue to host each other’s forces in order to conduct training and be prepared to deploy when necessary, and in future conduct current operations. 

The US presently has over 9,000 personnel stationed in the UK, primarily on joint Royal Air Force bases such as RAF Mildenhall and Lakenheath in Suffolk, where US regiments conduct fighter, transport, logistics and aerial refuelling operations.  The Joint Analysis Centre at RAF Molesworth is a example of the cooperation, where British analysts and US monitor the world’s trouble areas together.  The four US services continue to send exchange personnel to work with the UK armed forces, and exchange both senior and junior military officers in British defence schools.  The UK currently has around 800 British personnel in the US. In the Air the UK is a partner in the development of the Joint Strike Fighter, which is a unique program with each country’s defence industries sharing the development of a common future platform that will ensure the US and UK, and other partners posses the latest technology in air superiority for the next generation.  Our Military cohesion was extended even further in 2014, when the UK and US signed a new agreement that was critical to Brittan’s Trident nuclear weapons system, was signed by British and US officials, the news stated that the 1958 UK-US Mutual Defence Agreement has been updated.  This new amendment that will last for 10 years, one which will permit the transfer between the US and UK of classified nuclear information concerning nuclear technology, atomic weapons and controlled nuclear material and critical information.  At the time the President Obama stated “intends to continue to maintain viable nuclear forces into the foreseeable future” he also mentioned that it was in America’s interest, to continue to help the UK “in maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent”[9].  The continued close security cooperation between the UK and US is probably going to continue, particularly in intelligence sharing. The EU has been traditionally excluded from aspects of the conversation of intelligence which has taken place between the English speaking “Five Eyes” states US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand[10].  Evidence and history has shown that the UK and US stand shoulder to shoulder with each other in order to deter and if necessary, defeat the threats to our common way of life.  The future does indicate a number of new opportunities to strengthen this relationship further.  With any new strategic circumstances, come new reasons to cooperate.  We certainly cannot afford to miss these opportunities.  With both countries recognising that many of the problems that we both face can’t be solved alone.

That shoulder to shoulder stance, was put in the spotlight and made headlines across the world, when on the 23 June 2016 the decision for the UK to exit from the EU was a clear demonstration that history is not linear.  The following day the previous prime mister David Cameroon resigned and the UK pound plummeted. The FTSE 100 lost significant ground, but then the pound rallied past the previous February levels and the FTSE closed on a weekly high of 2.4%, this was it’s best performance in 4 months on what many speculated would be a future of economic gloom.  The previous US president Obama decided we ‘wouldn’t be at the back of the queue’ after all, and that or ‘special relationship’ was still strong. 

Following the Brexit vote in June 2016, this will now allow the UK to charter a new course as a sovereign, it will become a free nation and one which will be able to implement free trade agreements with countries across the world once the UK exits the EU in 2019.  On the 29 March 2016, the UK changed its history by submitting a six-page letter from Mrs May triggering Article 50, which was handed to European Council President Donald Tusk[11].  When the UK leaves the EU in 2019 this will open the opportunities for the future of a free trade agreement between the UK and US. Currently the UK has the fifth largest economy and the US the largest in the world respectively.  Just seven days after taking office Teresa May was the first foreign leader to visit Donald Trump after being elected for president[12]. History has shown us that in the past the economic polices of the UK and the US has been seen as a similarity since the 1970s. The UK economic growth has held up netter than expected in the 12 months following the Brexit vote, in the longer term, the UK economy show continue to grow to around 2%, following Brexit. Currently when it comes to UK exports to a single nation, the US is the UK’s largest export destination with a current market worth some £3.5 billion. Equally, the US is the UK’s third biggest after China and Germany, procuring some £2.9billion of products form the US.  In my mind there does appear to be two key thoughts that Brexit is having much less of an effect and impact in the US. Firstly the relative isolation of the US economy, as only 15% of GDP is related to international trade. Secondly, in the last 18 months investors in the US were anticipating a rise in the interest rate, which would have had a negative impact. Following Brexit and the global uncertainty caused by the outcome, the Federal Reserve System put the increase on hold.  This has allowed the US markets plenty of opportunity to go even higher[13].  For the future the UK and the US should persist exploring areas where the alignment of bilateral regulatory systems can lead to new business opportunities and reduce costs of unnecessary regulation.  The UK and US Governments should also increase collaboration in higher education, especially between our world-leading universities, this would allow for our countries to build on their joint leadership role and pull together on the great economic potential linked to it.  The UK and the US economies are described by large and growing services sectors and should explore ways of enhancing trade in services, particularly in business services, which are key input for global supply chains[14].

In summary, If Britain’s world influence weakens, and the US continues to change its priorities away from Europe to other more surging geopolitical challenges, the special relationship could face a low-spirited future. The UK’s valuableness to the US could increase if the EU were to acquire a much more active global position. It is true trade deals will be forged with the US following the semi-detached status from the EU, and clearly no longer part of the EU economy. There is no doubt It will have a much weaker negotiating power and gravitational pull than previously held, thus relying on the proven ’special relationship’ in order to take the alliance forward and beyond 2019.

The ‘Special Relationship’ has been the world’s most powerful bilateral partnership for over 70 years and is fundamentally important to both London and Washington. It has played a vital role in the defence of the free world since World War II and has been instrumental in advancing economic freedom across the globe.  The UK and US has built a ‘special relationship’, which was formed and built well before any mention of the UK leaving the EU. The UK can retain its ‘special relationship’ by working closely with the US, we continue to set an example for others and will persist to deliver a basis for further collaboration with our Allies and partners around the world, which include through NATO, in the future years to come. 


















[1]The Quotation page 2087

[2] Oxford bibliographies

[3] The New statesman, Mar 2016

[4] The guardian 26 Jan 2017


[6] jcs.mil/Portals/36/Documents/Publications/2015_National_Military_Strategy.pdf

[7] National_security_strategy_strategic_defence_security_review_annual_report_2016.pdf

[8] Whitehouse joint-fact-sheet-us-and-uk-defense-cooperation

[9] Theguardian.com/world/defence and security 29 Jul 14

[10] The Independent 28 Jun 16

[11] bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-39431428

[12] bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-politics-38778452/may-meets-trump-three-key-things

[13] woodfordfunds.com/economic-impact-brexit-report

[14] https://www.babinc.org/moving-forward-future-uk-us-economic-relationship/


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