Rewriting the rules of British-US diplomacy

Moral teacher: The leaders as Socrates and Alcibiades. By The Day with apologies to Marcello Bacciarelli, 1776 – 77.

Is it time to ditch the term “special relationship”? As Boris Johnson and Joe Biden meet for the first time today, the nature of the UK’s dealings with the US could change dramatically.

The poker game was going badly for Churchill. After an hour’s play with President Truman and his entourage, he had lost hundreds of dollars. He went to the toilet. Truman turned to his companions and ordered: “This man is the saviour of the free world. You lose to him.”

This story is of a meeting in 1946. To some, it epitomises the relationship between Britain and America: mutual respect and consideration.

The game took place on a train to Fulton, Missouri. Churchill was no longer Britain’s prime minister. But the speech he was about to give would go into history.

“Neither the sure prevention of war, nor the continuous rise of world organisation will be gained without… the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples,” he said. “This means a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States.”

The phrase “special relationship” has been invoked by many British prime ministers and US presidents. Joe Biden said he sees his visit to Britain for the G7 summit as a chance to affirm it.

Critics argue the relationship is one-sided, with Britain doing America’s bidding.

Is it time to ditch the term “special relationship”?

Transatlantic notion

Yes. In 1946 it had meaning: Britain and America had been allies in World War Two, both were anxious about Russia. Britain was the dominant European power, and still had colonies, America considered it an ideal partner. Britain has lost power and influence. US governments see the UK as just another country.

No. They argue that Churchill made an important point when he talked of “English-speaking peoples”. Although America’s population is made up of many nationalities, and Spanish is widely spoken, it remains culturally close to Britain. That is why the countries’ leaders have often had a close rapport.

You Decide

  1. Boris Johnson had dual British and US citizenship until 2016. Is it possible to feel loyalty to more than one country?


  1. Divide into teams, each representing one of the nations at the G7 summit. Choose three key global issues and hold your own summit to discuss them.

Some People Say...

“Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of the orator.”

Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965), British politician

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the Carbis Bay Hotel is an odd venue for the G7 summit. It is not included in Britain’s Good Hotel Guide, whose editor suggests that Johnson has decided to inflict “a cruel and unusual punishment” on his counterparts by choosing it. It does, however, have a large beach on which the leaders can stroll if the Cornish wind is not blowing too hard. With 6,500 police on duty, and 4,000 rooms booked for them, around 1,000 are having to sleep on an Estonian cruise ship.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around how Brexit has affected the US-UK relationship. America did not want Britain to leave the EU because it saw it as a useful partner within Europe; France or Germany could now take over that role. Joe Biden is particularly anxious that Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement should be honoured, and might well side with the EU against Britain in the dispute over imports to Northern Ireland. Since Britain now badly needs more trade with the US, it is in a weak position.

Word Watch

President Truman
Harry Truman served as president from 1945 until 1953. He was a passionate poker player.
The people surrounding him.
Prime minister
Churchill was re-elected in 1951 and remained in office until 1955.
World organisation
The United Nations was founded at the end of the previous year.
G7 summit
A meeting between the leaders of seven of the world’s major industrialised nations.

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