World: Redefining That Special Relationship

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WHEN British Prime Minister Harold Wilson pays his first call on President Nixon this week, a familiar phrase may very well come up during their meeting—the "special relationship." Even today, the phrase conjures up deep and enduring ties between the two countries that may be helpful. Yet it does not come even close to carrying the significance that it did in 1946 when the phrase was coined by Winston Churchill.

The foundations of the special relationship were laid at the turn of the century. According to Henry Adams, it was fostered by "the sudden appearance of Germany as the grizzly terror, which in 20 years effected what Adamses had tried for 200 in vain—frightened England into America's arms." There was more to it than a fear of German power. There was also more than the common language; as a U.S. official puts it, "the South Africans speak English too." It was a matter of shared history, parallel views of civilization, common traditions of parliamentary democracy and respect for individual rights. When Churchill referred to the relationship in his famed "Iron Curtain speech" at Missouri's Westminster College, he foresaw joint U.S.-British cooperation against the looming Soviet peril, which ultimately might lead to common Anglo-American citizenship. Nobody would go that far today.

End of the Affair. During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt and Churchill set a pattern of close friendship and camaraderie that was followed by their successors through John F. Kennedy. Since 1963, however, the relationship has grown steadily less special.

Britain's precipitous decline from world-power status to that of a second-class nation rendered its alliance with the U.S. unbalanced—and unproductive. As Britain liquidated its imperial holdings, its diplomacy largely lost the ability to influence and aid U.S. policy. Britain's failure to win admission to Europe's thriving Common Market only underlined its role, in the harsh words of one American, as "that butterfly content to flutter pathetically on the periphery of the world." In Europe, West Germany became a far more important U.S. partner; in Asia, Japan.

Says Lord Harlech, whose Washington ambassadorship spanned the transition from Kennedy to the Johnson Administration: "By the time of Lyndon Johnson, the American machinery was influenced only by what you could deliver. You couldn't hide it that you were continually asking for money and at the same time withdrawing from one commitment after another around the world." In addition, Johnson gave the impression that he regarded it as a waste of time to deal with the British.

No wonder the British are somewhat distressed that their friends, nearly all members of the Eastern intellectual establishment, have been replaced by men of a different background. "For years, it's been good old Dean [Rusk], or Walt [Rostow] or George [Ball]," says one diplomat in London. "Now there's suddenly Heinrich Kissinger in the White House basement sweating over the Baden-Württemberg election, or names like Ehrlichman and Ziegler." One British writer saw Nixon's election as "the end of the affair."

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