At the heart of the ‘special relationship’ ideology, there is supposed to be a grand bargain. In exchange for paying the ‘blood price’ as America's ally, Britain will be rewarded with exceptional influence over American foreign policy and its strategic behaviour. Soldiers and statesman continue to articulate this idea. Since 9/11, the notion of Britain playing ‘Greece’ to America's ‘Rome’ gained new life thanks to Anglophiles on both sides of the Atlantic. One potent version of this ideology was that the more seasoned British would teach Americans how to fight ‘small wars’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, thereby bolstering their role as tutor to the superpower. Britain does derive benefits from the Anglo-American alliance and has made momentous contributions to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet British solidarity and sacrifices have not purchased special influence in Washington. This is partly due to Atlanticist ideology, which sets Britain unrealistic standards by which it is judged, and partly because the notion of ‘special influence’ is misleading as it loses sight of the complexities of American policy-making. The overall result of expeditionary wars has been to strain British credibility in American eyes and to display its lack of consistent influence both over high policy and the design and execution of US military campaigns. While there may be good arguments in favour of the UK continuing its efforts in Afghanistan, the notion that the war fortifies Britain's vicarious world status is a dangerous illusion that leads to repeated overstretch and disappointment. Now that Britain is in the foothills of a strategic defence review, it is important that the British abandon this false consciousness.


Philip Bobbitt, Terror and consent: the wars for the twenty-first century (London: Penguin 2008), dedication page.
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On British defence dilemmas, see Hew Strachan,‘Strategy as a balancing act: the UK's dilemma’, RUSI Journal153: 3, 2008, pp. 6–10.
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Michael Cox,‘Beyond the West: terrors in Transatlantia’, European Journal of International Relations11: 2, 2005, pp. 203–33; Christopher Coker, Twilight of the West (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1998), p. 419. This is the argument throughout of Robert Kagan in Paradise and power (New York: Atlantic Books, 2003). Demographic and ideological arguments are also sceptically discussed in the context of European–American relations by David Hastings Dunn,‘Assessing the debate, assessing the damage: transatlantic relations after Bush’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations11: 1, 2009, pp. 4–24at pp. 9–11, 15.The Economist also argues that differences between Britons and Americans on political questions outweigh similarities: ‘Anglo-Saxon attitudes: why the Brits are not Yanks’, The Economist, 27 March 2008.
Francis P. Sempa, ‘The Asian eclipse of Europe’, American Diplomacy, 27 Nov. 2007.
The CIA operates a large espionage network within Britain. One intelligence source claims that four in ten CIA counterterrorist operations are directed at Britons and warns that British terrorists are the gravest threat to the US. Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who advised Obama, claims that the British Pakistani community is Al-Qaeda's most likely route for an attack on North America: Tim Shipman, ‘Why the CIA has to spy on Britain’, Spectator, 28 Feb. 2009; Tim Shipman, ‘CIA warns Barack Obama that British terrorists are the biggest threat to the US’, Daily Telegraph, 9 Feb. 2009.
Winston Churchill, ‘The sinews of peace’, speech at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri, 5 March 1946, http://www.nato.int/docu/speech/1946/S460305a_e.htm, accessed 1 Sept. 2009.
Cited in David Reynolds, ‘Roosevelt, Churchill and the wartime Anglo-American alliance, 1935–1945: towards a new synthesis’, in Hedley Bull and William Roger Louis, eds, The ‘special relationship’: Anglo-American relations since 1945 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1986), pp. 85–6.
David Reynolds,‘A “special relationship”? America, Britain and the international order since the Second World War’, International Affairs62:1, 1986, pp. 1–20at p. 2.
The Strategic Defence Review (London: TSO, July 1998); The Strategic Defence Review: a new chapter (London: TSO, July 2002); Delivering security in a changing world: defence white paper (London: TSO, 2003).
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Tony Blair, speech at Lord Mayor's Banquet, Guildhall, London, 22 Nov. 1999, http://www.number-10.gov.uk, accessed 2 Sept. 2009.
‘The Blair doctrine’, Online NewsHour, 22 April 1999.
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‘Full text: Tony Blair's speech’, Guardian, 18 March 2003.
James Naughtie, The accidental American: Tony Blair and the presidency (Oxford: Macmillan, 2004), pp. 83–4. On Blair's argument, see also Alex Danchev, ‘“I'm with you”: Tony Blair and the obligations of alliance. Anglo-American relations in historical perspective’, in Lloyd Gardner and Marilyn Young, eds, Iraq and the lessons of Vietnam (New York: New Press, 2007), pp. 45–58 at p. 49. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw also warned in March 2003 that abandoning support for the US would accelerate American unilateralism and induce it to renounce its position as a good citizen of the international community: ‘We will reap a whirlwind if we push the Americans into a unilateralist position in which they are at the centre of this unipolar world’ (evidence to House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, 4 March 2003, col. 173, cited in James K. Wither,‘British bulldog or Bush's poodle? Anglo-American relations and the Iraq war’, Parameters33: 4, 2003–2004, pp. 67–82at p. 72).
See also Tim Dunne,‘When the shooting starts: Atlanticism in British security strategy’, International Affairs80: 5, Sept. 2004, pp. 893–909at p. 898.
On this point see also Samuel Azubuike,‘The “poodle theory” and the Anglo-American special relationship’, International Studies42: 2, 2005, pp. 123–39at pp. 130–32.
Suzanne Goldenberg, ‘Blair refused three offers to stay out of Iraq’, Guardian, 19 April 2004; Bob Woodward, Plan of attack (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), p. 338.
Gordon Brown, speech at Lord Mayor's Banquet, Guildhall, London, 10 Nov. 2008, http://www.number10.gov.uk/page17419, accessed 2 Sept. 2009.
Richard Beeston, ‘Miliband rallies support for Bush with a defence of vital alliance’, The Times, 19 July 2007.
Lord Renwick, cited in Wallace and Phillips, ‘Reassessing the special relationship’, p. 267.
Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans. Richard Crawley (New York: Dover Publications, 2004), 1.76.2.
Delivering security in a changing world, p. 19; Delivering security in a changing world: future capabilities (London: TSO, 2004), pp. 2, 3.
‘Britain's armed forces: losing their way?’, The Economist, 29 Jan. 2009.
‘Army fury at refusal to bolster Afghan campaign’, Independent, 1 June 2009.
See William Wallace,‘The collapse of British foreign policy’, International Affairs81: 1, Jan. 2005, pp. 53–68at p. 53.
David Betz Anthony Cormack,‘Iraq, Afghanistan and British strategy’, Orbis53: 2, 2009, pp. 319–36at p. 326.
John O'sullivan, ‘Special relationship will survive—as before’, Daily Telegraph, 14 July 2007.
Lawrence Freedman,‘The special relationship: then and now’, Foreign Affairs85: 3, 2006, pp. 61–73at p. 73.
Michael Howard,‘NATO at fifty—an unhappy successful marriage: security means knowing what to expect’, Foreign Affairs78: 3, MayJune 1999, pp. 164–89.
Patrick Cockburn, ‘Germany tops the US global pecking order’, Independent, 4 July 1993.
The terms Pax anti-Germanica and Pax anti-Sovietica are taken from Alex Danchev,‘On specialness’, International Affairs72: 4, 1996, pp. 737–50at p. 739.
Statements cited in Danna Harman, ‘As occupiers, Brits bring experience: years of global policing have made soldiers all-rounders’, Christian Science Monitor, 20 May 2003. This attitude persisted in some American commentary. See e.g. Stephen Webbe, ‘How to beat Iraq's insurgents? Ask the British’, Christian Science Monitor, 23 July 2007: ‘The British did know about counterinsurgency and, as a result, they've handled Basra, in southern Iraq, with considerable skill. They've made a point of consulting religious leaders and tribal elders there, patrolling in berets, eschewing scary dark glasses, and gathering detailed intelligence on the Iranian-backed Shiite militias that bedevil the city … US troops, by contrast, can appear sinister in helmets, dark glasses, and body armour. Forever watching their backs, they can often seem brash and trigger-happy … While the British focus on winning Iraqi hearts and minds, US troops, imbued with a fierce warrior ethic, have been more reluctant to take up the task.’
Alisha Ryu, ‘Basra seen a possible model of a more stable Iraq’, VOA News, 17 Dec. 2003.
James Ashcroft, former Army captain and private military contractor, claimed Britain's forces had the art of small wars in their bloodstream. ‘Hundreds of years of colonial policing had left the experience of interacting with dangerous peoples in the bones of the British Army’: Making a killing: the explosive story of a hired gun in Iraq (London: Virgin, 2007), p. 42. Rod Thornton, historian and former infantry sergeant, reflected that the Army has a ‘preordained’ doctrine of minimum force rooted in its colonial past, a ‘low key’ and ‘patient’ approach, embodied in the non-use of provocative accessories such as dark glasses, and intimate contact with the locals. This was working ‘to good effect’, and the US approach with its lack of sensitivity and nuance was anathema to the British way. See Rod Thornton, ‘Historical origins of the British Army's counter-insurgency and counter-terrorist techniques’, in Theodor Winkler, Anja Ebnother and Mats Hansson, eds, Combating terrorism and its implications for the security sector (Stockholm: Swedish National Defence College, 2005), pp. 26–45 at p. 38.
David Chancellor,‘Rebuilding Basra’, The Officer16: 1, 2004, p. 8.
Cited in Patrick Devenny and Robert McLean, ‘The battle for Basra’, American Spectator, 11 Jan. 2005.
John Gray, ‘The mirage of American empire’, 21 April 2003, reprinted in Heresies: against progress and other illusions (London: Granta, 2004), pp. 153–54. Max Boot draws attention to America's own long history of minor wars in The savage wars of peace: small wars and the rise of American power (New York: Basic Books, 2003).
Timothy Garton Ash, ‘Between cheese-eating surrender monkeys and fire-eating war junkies’, Guardian, 6 July 2006.
‘British were complacent in Afghanistan, says Sir Jock Stirrup’, The Times, 30 Jan. 2009. A British intelligence officer also acknowledged: ‘We used to patronise the Americans and say we had long experience of counter-insurgency gained in Malaya and Northern Ireland’ (Patrick Cockburn, ‘Our troops had few friends in Basra’, Independent, 18 Dec. 2008).
Richard Norton-Taylor, ‘Iraq: the legacy—ill equipped, poorly trained and mired in a “bloody mess”’, Guardian, 17 April 2009; Tim Shipman, ‘British forces useless in Basra, say officials’, Daily Telegraph, 19 Aug. 2007.
Cited anonymously in Stephen Fidler, ‘Run out of town’, Financial Times, 21 Aug. 2007.
‘Army transformation, implications for the future’, statement of Major-General Robert Scales, House Armed Services Committee, 15 July 2004. See also ‘Culture-centric warfare’, US Naval Institute Proceedings 130, 2004, pp. 32–6.
George Packer, ‘The lesson of Tal Afar: is it too late for the administration to correct its course in Iraq?’, New Yorker, 10 April 2006: ‘The classic doctrine, which was developed by the British in Malaya in the nineteen-forties and fifties, says that counterinsurgency warfare is twenty per cent military and eighty per cent political. The focus of operations is on the civilian population: isolating residents from insurgents, providing security, building a police force, and allowing political and economic development to take place so that the government commands the allegiance of its citizens. A counterinsurgency strategy involves both offensive and defensive operations, but there is an emphasis on using the minimum amount of force necessary.’
Thomas Donnelly,‘The cousins' counter-insurgency wars’, RUSI Journal154: 3, June 2009, pp. 4–9at p. 4.
Nigel R. F. Aylwin-Foster,‘Changing the Army for counter-insurgency operations’, Military Review85: 6, 2005, pp. 2–15.
Ashley Jackson, ‘British counter-insurgency in history: a useful precedent?’, British Army Review, no. 139, 2006, pp. 14–16; Huw Bennett,‘The other side of the COIN: minimum and exemplary force in British Army counterinsurgency in Kenya’, Small Wars and Insurgencies18: 4, Dec. 2007, pp. 638–64; Hew Strachan,‘British counter-insurgency from Malaya to Iraq’, RUSI Journal152: 6, Dec. 2007, pp. 8–11at p. 10; Paul Dixon,‘Hearts and minds: British counter-insurgency from Malaya to Iraq’, Journal of Strategic Studies32: 3, June 2009, pp. 353–81.
See David Anderson, Histories of the hanged: the dirty war in Kenya and the end of empire (New York: Orion, 2005).
Comments by Daniel Marston in ‘Counterinsurgency in modern warfare? A discussion by senior military scholars’, National Press Club, 22 July 2008, located at http://www.cna.org/documents/counterinsurgency%20transcript.pdf, accessed 22 Sept. 2009.
Michael Knights and Ed Williams, ‘Calm before the storm: the British experience in southern Iraq’, Policy Focus 66, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Feb. 2007, p. 10. If this is true, the force hailed for its culturally rooted aversion to gun culture was insensitive to the Iraqi locals' own gun culture.
For officers' complaints, see David Betz Anthony Cormack,‘Hot war, cold comfort: a less optimistic take on the British military in Afghanistan’, RUSI Journal154: 4, 2009, pp. 26–9at p. 26; Brigadier Mackay of 52 Brigade denounced it as a ‘corrupt measure of success’. See Theo Farrell Stuart Gordon,‘COIN machine: the British military in Afghanistan’, RUSI Journal154: 3, 2009, pp. 18–25at pp. 21–2; Mackay's view appears on p. 22.
In Operation Herrick 5 in Afghanistan between October 2006 and March 2007, the British fired 1,295,795 bullets; in Herrick 6 from April to September 2007, the 12th Mechanized Brigade fired 2,474,560 bullets. Both figures exclude artillery rounds, cannon shells and bombs. Figures obtained by James Fergusson, A million bullets: the real story of the British Army in Afghanistan (London: Bantam, 2008), p. 324.
See Stuart Tootal, Danger close: commanding 3 Para in Afghanistan (London: John Murray, 2009).
Knights and Williams, ‘Calm before the storm’, p. 34.
Jonathan Foreman, ‘Too pleased with ourselves in Iraq’, The First Post, 22 June 2009.
Mona Mahmoud, Maggie O'Kane and Ian Black, ‘UK has left behind murder and chaos, says Basra police chief’, Guardian, 17 Dec. 2007.
Anthony King, ‘Britain's Vietnam? Learning the lessons of Operation Telic’, RUSI website, http://www.rusi.org/research/militarysciences/uk/commentary/ref:C49F9BEE224FA0/, accessed 16 Sept. 2009.
‘Baha Mousa soldiers “not just a few bad apples”’, Daily Telegraph, 21 Sept. 2009.
Figures cited in Warren Chin, ‘Why did it all go wrong? Reassessing British counterinsurgency in Iraq’, Strategic Studies Quarterly, Winter 2008, p. 128.
Cited in Stryker McGuire and Michael Hastings, ‘Basra breakdown: the Brits thought they knew counterin-surgency better. What went wrong?’, Newsweek, 29 May 2006.
Tim Shipman, ‘British forces useless in Basra, say officials’, Daily Telegraph, 19 Aug. 2007.
Bill Roggio, ‘Taliban have not split from al Qaeda: sources’, Long War Journal, 7 Oct. 2008, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2008/10/taliban_have_not_spl.php, accessed 8 Oct. 2008.
Max Hastings, ‘Listen up, Limey, the special's off the menu’, Sunday Times, 6 Sept. 2009.
‘Army fury at refusal to bolster Afghan campaign’, Independent, 1 June 2009.
Richard Norton-Taylor, ‘Expect more Afghanistan casualties, says Bob Ainsworth’, Guardian, 24 July 2009.
Thomas Harding, ‘Britain's withdrawal from Iraq: how Army was handicapped by early errors’, Daily Telegraph, 17 Dec. 2008.
General Sir David Richards, ‘Twenty-first-century armed forces: agile, useable, relevant’, speech to Royal United Services Institute, London, 25 June 2009, http://www.chathamhouse.org.uk/files/14815_170909richards.pdf, accessed 1 Oct. 2009.
Anthony King, ‘Colonel Iron and the charge of the knights’, Prospect, no. 156, March 2009, pp. 40–43.
US Army/Marine Corps, Counterinsurgency field manual 3–24 (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2006). The manual refers to the pantheon of British ‘small wars’ thinkers, including Charles Calwell, Frank Kitson and T. E. Lawrence, as well as to the campaign in Malaya.
As Paul Cornish notes, quoted in Eleanor Stables, ‘Winning British hearts and minds’, American Spectator, 9 March 2009.
Azubuike, ‘The “poodle theory”’, p. 135.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Imperial life in the Emerald City: inside Iraq's Green Zone (New York: Random House, 2006), p. 307.
Glen Rangwala,‘Deputizing in war: British policies and predicaments in Iraq, 2003–2007’, International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies1: 3, 2007, pp. 293–309at p. 300.
‘Stability operations in Iraq (Op Telic 2.5): an analysis from a land perspective’, p. 2, introduction, para. 5, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/politics/defence/6631711/Iraq-war-files-the-documents-part-one.html, accessed 26 Nov. 2009.
John F. Burns, ‘UK documents show friction with US on Iraq’, New York Times, 23 Nov. 2009; transcript of interview at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/politics/defence/6634115/Iraq-war-files-British-colonels-scathing-attack-on-arrogant-bureaucratic-Americans.html, accessed 26 Nov. 2009.
Colin Brown, ‘CIA misled Britain over rendition plan’, Independent, 26 July 2007.
Andrew Clark, “‘Evil and Orwellian”—America's right turns its fire on the NHS’, Guardian, 11 Aug. 2009.
‘Saudis warn US over Iraq war’, BBC News, 17 Feb. 2003; Michael Gordon, ‘Saudis warn against attack on Iraq by the United States’, New York Times, 17 March 2002.
Victor Bulmer-Thomas, ‘Blair's foreign policy and its possible successors’, Chatham House briefing paper 06/01, Dec. 2006, p. 5.
Figures from YouGov/Spectator survey, 14–15 Aug. 2006, http://www.yougov.com/archives/pdf/Spectator-PollResults.pdf, accessed 26 Sept. 2009.
Financial Times/Harris Poll, 21 Aug. 2006, http://www.harrisinteractive.com/news/allnewsbydate.asp?NewsID=1081, accessed 16 Sept. 2009.
Andrew Bacevich, The limits of power: the end of American exceptionalism (Melbourne: Holt, 2008), p. 169.
See Patrick Porter,‘Long wars and long telegrams: containing Al-Qaeda’, International Affairs85: 2, March 2009, pp. 285–305.

Author notes

For their advice in the preparation of this article, I am grateful to Dr Robert Saunders and Professor Greg Kennedy.