VERIFY: The UK-USA “special relationship” became meaningless under Donald Trump

Without citing evidence, BBC’s Paul Danahar claimed the UK-USA special relationship had been “rendered meaningless” under the presidency of Donald Trump. However, there is a learned consensus that no special relationship has ever existed in practice, and that the idea of such a relationship is one largely confined to myth and nostalgia.

Background: Since the end of World War II, Britons have frequently referred to a “special relationship” between their nation and the United States. The term was introduced by Winston Churchill in 1946 during a speech in Missouri. It is less frequently used by Americans to refer to the United Kingdom.

The Claim: In a 9 November 2020 tweet, the BBC’s Paul Danahar — without citing evidence — opined of the UK-USA “special relationship” that, “the Trump years rendered it all but meaningless.”


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Investigation: To investigate Danahar’s claim we, logically, had to proceed along a two step path. First, we had to determine whether the UK-USA special relationship was meaningful prior to Trump’s 2017 inauguration as President of the United States, for something that is already meaningless cannot be rendered meaningless. If it was meaningful, we next had to determine if it had become meaningless since 2017.

Ultimately, we didn’t need to proceed past the first step.

That the UK-USA “special relationship” is an idea embraced only by policy elites is proved by several decades of study. Research by Jorgen Rasmussen and James M. McCormick, chronicled in the August 1993 issue of Political Science Quarterly, reports that at “the level of British mass perceptions, the Anglo-American special relationship seems to be largely a myth” and that “British public opinion regarding the United States appears to be event specific and, therefore, not unique or special.” Two decades later, even event specific agreement was rare. Drawing on extensive survey data, Bruce Stokes of the Pew Research Center wrote in 2013 that “the ‘special relationship’ is not that special when it comes to public opinion. The British and American publics do broadly agree on many international issues. But they differ on the details involving fundamental foreign policy challenges.”

However, even among elite observers and commentators, the existence of a special relationship has been robustly questioned. Writing in The Guardian in 2007, Middle East expert Soumaya Ghannoushi commented that Britain’s supposedly privileged connection with the US is a fallacy: it is neither special nor based on shared values.” This position is echoed on the other side of the political divide by conservative columnist Simon Heffer. In a 2014 column for The Sunday Telegraph Heffer noted that the United States was now focused on the Pacific and that President Barack Obama didn’t value “Britain as anything other than a junior ally in America’s cause in the world.”

Both Ghannoushi and Heffer’s positions represent a general consensus that seems to be held by all but the nostalgic. In chapter three of his important biography of the policy life of Harold Macmillan historian W. Scott Lucas refers to a “rose-tinted” and illusory vision of a special relationship between the United States and United Kingdom, a relationship which he describes as a “myth.” Meanwhile, the eminent Columbia University historian Volker Berghahn argues, in a 2016 article for the Harvard Business Review, that America’s special relationship is actually with Germany, not Britain.

Posing the question, “just how special is the special relationship,” British historian Sir Max Hastings posits that Churchill’s absence at Franklin Roosevelt’s funeral was due largely to the prime minister’s bitterness towards the late president, and Americans generally, over the ruthless way the Anglo-American relationship had been handled at the height of World War II. He goes on to note Dwight Eisenhower’s refusal to support Britain during the Suez Crisis as another example of the so-called special relationship being anything but that.

A further wide body of writing contends that the so-called special relationship has only been special to Britain, not the United States. This view is neatly encapsulated in Samuel Azubuike’s 2005 article in the journal International Studies in which he describes Britain as a “vassal” or a mere pet “poodle” to the United States. Reinforcing this perspective is a series of incidents from the early Obama Administration in which, according to The Independent, British officials prostrated themselves before American diplomats in London with promises of obeisance and fealty, demonstrations that reportedly “exasperated” Americans who privately ridiculed their British counterparts.

RATING: For Danahar’s claim that the “special relationship” had been “rendered all but meaningless” during the presidency of Donald Trump to be true, it would first have to be true that it was meaningful prior to the Trump presidency. Something that is already meaningless cannot be rendered meaningless.

A learned consensus supports the idea that a special relationship between the United States and United Kingdom is illusory, mythical, superficial, and without substantive meaning. Therefore, Danahar’s claim is FALSE.


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