Panel Examines 'Special Relationship' of U.S. and U.K.

October 31, 2011 — It is not surprising that former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, son of an American mother and a British father, is commonly credited with coining the term "special relationship" to describe the partnership between the United States and Great Britain. Through two world wars and the Cold War, when the U.S. and British alliance was formalized through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the two English-speaking powers have developed an exceptionally close bond.

On Friday at the University of Virginia, a distinguished group of panelists – ex-U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh, British Parliament member Lord Alan Watson and political commentator Juan Williams – discussed the current state of the "special relationship" and the American-British common front in a time of worldwide upheaval. The forum was presented by U.Va.'s Center for Politics and moderated by its director, politics professor Larry J. Sabato of the College of Arts & Sciences.

Sabato opened by noting that in 1980, the world had 45 democracies. Now the figure is 120, and that doesn't include developments related to the outbreak of the Arab Spring. Part of the upheaval in the Middle East and northern Africa was in Libya, where rebels overthrew the government of dictator Muammar Gadhafi after a period of civil war. American and British forces aided the rebels through a NATO mission.

Watson, assessing the Libyan intervention, said he believed the justification for American and British involvement there was "extraordinarily weak." While the two powers and their allies intervened ostensibly to protect the Libyan people from Gadhafi, Western powers have not intervened in other countries where leaders threaten their own people, he said.

The U.S. and Great Britain must "revisit the core values of this relationship and articulate them as a vision, not simply a policy reaction to a particular crisis," said Watson, who in addition to being a member of the House of Lords is also high steward of the University of Cambridge and a former BBC commentator.

More supportive of the Libyan intervention were Bayh, also an ex-governor and secretary of state of Indiana, and Williams, a Fox News commentator who previously worked for the Washington Post and National Public Radio.

Bayh defended supporting the rebels because it was a chance, in this instance, for the U.S. and its allies to do good without putting American troops in harm's way. "It's hard to be absolute when to intervene," Bayh said. Williams added that, based on Gadhafi's past support for terrorism – including his involvement in the 1988 Pan Am bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland – the "Western interest" was to remove him from power.

While the United States and Great Britain, together along with the Soviet Union, defeated Germany in World War II, it was clear that by the end of the war the U.S. had far surpassed the British in terms of military and economic might. Those disparities continue today, Watson said.

"It's a special relationship, but it's not an equal relationship," he said.

Sabato asked the panel how "austerity" on both sides of the Atlantic would affect the relationship. Bayh, a former member of the Senate's Armed Services Committee (and a 1981 graduate of U.Va.'s School of Law), noted that there are two kinds of power: hard power, which is the explicit use of force, and soft power, which is the use of economic forces, intelligence and other non-violent tools to exert one's self internationally.

"Our ability to engage in hard power is constrained by our resources," which could lead to more of the use of soft power to achieve shared British and American international goals, Bayh said.

Watson agreed, adding that, "Austerity can increase cooperation."

The British-American relationship has often been led by close relationships between the two countries' leaders, Williams said, dating back to Churchill's partnership with President Franklin Roosevelt during World War II and, more recently, strong bonds between President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair. Watson added that the Bush-Blair relationship, which led to British support for the war in Iraq, might have been "too close."

As for the nations' shared values, Watson cited Churchill, who once said that British principles of individual rights and the rule of law "find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence." That might have been news to the Founding Fathers, who won their independence from the British, but it helps explain why the "special relationship" endures.

— By Kyle Kondik

Media Contact

H. Brevy Cannon

Media Relations Associate Office of University Communications