Robert HendershotMar 13, 2009
Perception, Illusion and Sentimentality in the Anglo-American Special Relationship
Gordon Brown, the British PM, came calling to Washington recently. He jumped the pond, of course, to have a chat with his new counterpart, President Barack Obama. They had a lot to talk about, what with the world economy melting down, the Afghan War heating up, and Iraq coming apart. But he had another purpose as well. In his speech before Congress Mr. Brown intoned: "Madam Speaker, Mr Vice-President, I come in friendship to renew, for new times, our special relationship founded upon our shared history, our shared values and, I believe, our shared futures." The "special relationship," that's what Churchill called it and every PM and President since has followed his lead. But what exactly is "special relationship," and how has it and does it impact British and American politics and policy? The answer is found in Robert Hendershot's insightful new book Family Spats: Perception, Illusion and Sentimentality in the Anglo-American Special Relationship (VDM Verlag, 2008). Hendershot points out that foreign policy is not only about cold, self-interested costs and benefits--it's also about feeling. In this case, it's about the feeling among policy elites and national populations that they enjoy some deep cultural bond. This peculiar attachment mattered: Hendershot shows that even where British and American interests collided (for example in the Suez Crisis and the Vietnam War), British and American politicians were compelled by popular sentiment to downplay their differences. The special relationship--though based on nothing but a kind of transnational camaraderie--has proven remarkably resilient. Even today we can see it in operation, for example in Brown's speech but more forcefully in the British commitment to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For whatever reason, American and British national identities are intertwined. "We" are the people who love the British and "they" are the people who love the Americans--apparently for better and for worse in sickness and in health, until, well, something really awful happens. Please become a fan of "New Books in History" on Facebook if you haven't already.