Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


War and intelligence, a connection that remains
Corriere della Sera - March 29th, 2010

Having fought two wars together in the past nine years, neither of which yielded great honour or achievements, it may be natural for America and Britain to sit back and have a long cool think about quite what these two countries’ “special relationship” means. The Foreign Affairs Committee of Britain’s House of Commons (the main chamber of Parliament) has gone further, in a statement this weekend, by saying that the British media and British politicians should no longer talk about “the special relationship”, or use that phrase, which was invented by none other than Winston Churchill in a speech in 1948. Inevitably, people will conclude from this that the relationship between Britain and America is no longer special: the two countries must be drifting apart.


            This conclusion would be wrong. Throughout my journalistic career, which now goes back 30 years, people have questioned every few years whether Britain and America really live up to Churchill’s phrase. The truth every time is the same. And it is no different now.


            The truth comes in three parts. The first is that the one thing that is truly special about the British-American relationship is our ability to trust each other with secrets, with intelligence work. Ever since the Second World War, the foreign intelligence service with which the various American intelligence agencies have worked most closely is Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, popularly known as MI6—and the employer of the fictional 007, James Bond. The Americans do co-operate with other European spy services, of course, but by far their closest ties are with the British. This dates back both to wartime co-operation against Germany and to close links during the Cold War. This has not changed. One recent British court decision, concerning disclosure of evidence about torture, did bruise this relationship a little, but it has not ended its specialness.


            The second part is that the relationship is also a little bit special in times of war, for the Americans know that among their allies, the country likeliest to fight alongside them is Britain. This is not always true; Britain refused to send troops to Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, for example, despite repeated American requests to do so. But of course it was in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. So when wars are coming, or are in the midst of being fought, the relationship becomes more special. When they are ending, or when none is being fought, the relationship is less close.


            The third part, however, is that it is significant that the phrase “special relationship” was invented by a British leader, and not an American one. The “specialness” has always been felt more strongly on the British side. That is why the American media almost never use the phrase, but the British media use it a lot. British prime ministers care deeply about whether they are invited to the White House or Camp David. To most American presidents, however, they are just another visitor.


            So there is nothing really new about the Foreign Affairs Committee’s observation. Certainly, it reflects some of the political fall-out from the Iraq war, and the declining popular support for Afghanistan: members of Parliament, who will soon be battling for votes in the British general election that is likely to be announced on April 6th, realise that for the time being the “special relationship” is not popular with the British public. But this is not important.


            The Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons is not an important or influential body. Foreign policy in Britain is firmly under the control of the Prime Minister and his Foreign Secretary (ie, currently Gordon Brown and David Miliband). If they are re-elected on May 6th, or if David Cameron and William Hague of the Conservative Party take their place, you can be certain of one thing. That relations with the United States will continue to be their biggest foreign-policy concern, and that they will dearly, fondly hope that they, as Britain’s leaders, will have quite a special relationship with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.


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