The Buzz

Dean Acheson, National Interest and the Special Relationship

The idea of a special relationship between the United States and Britain may have been supported by the sentiments of America's former WASP establishment. But according to Geoffrey Wheatcroft, it was one of the central figures of the WASP elite who most prominently stated that the idea of a special relationship was a fantasy, particularly to the partner looking across the sea from the east.

In the Spectator, Wheatcroft recounts how in 1962 Dean Acheson, then a former Secretary of State with an impressive resumé ("Lend-Lease, Bretton Woods, the coming of the Cold War, the Truman Doctrine, the creation of Nato, the Korean war"), dropped a transatlantic political bomb in a speech at West Point. According to Wheatcroft, most of the speech was a conventional analysis of Cold War strategy. What was "almost an aside" got the most attention:

Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role — that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States, a role based on being head of a ‘commonwealth’ which has no political structure, or unity, or strength — this role is about played out. Great Britain, attempting to be a broker between the United States and Russia, has seemed to conduct policy as weak as its military power.

This unsurprisingly was deeply offensive to a country in the midst of dismantling an empire, and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and his successor Harold Wilson both publicly complained. Wheatcroft sides with Acheson, pointing out the proof had already come in 1947, when Truman ignored the Brits and supported a UN partition that would lead to the creation of Israel; and later in 1956, when Eisenhower ended the Franco-British operation in the Suez.

The episode illustrates the triumph of unsentimental interests over more nebulous notions of common cultural heritage, Wheatcroft concludes:

Acheson was right about Great Britain, and Macmillan’s clutching at American friendship seems in hindsight a poignant or even pitiful fantasy, though not one that ended with him. ... Like other prime ministers before and since, he persuaded himself that there was some mystical bond between the two countries, quite failing to see that ‘the United States, like all great powers, would in the end follow — without necessarily much regard for others — what it perceived from time to time to be its own interests’. Or as Palmerston said, in words of which Mikhail Gorbachev once reminded Margaret Thatcher, not that she needed reminding any more than de Gaulle did, nations have no eternal friends and no eternal foe, only eternal interests. That truth will never be ‘about played out’.