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US–UK relations in the era of détente, 1969–77

This is the first monograph length study that charts the coercive diplomacy of the administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford as practiced against their British ally in order to persuade Edward Heath’s government to follow a more amenable course throughout the ‘Year of Europe’ and to convince Harold Wilson’s governments to lessen the severity of proposed defence cuts. Such diplomacy proved effective against Heath but rather less so against Wilson. It is argued that relations between the two sides were often strained, indeed, to the extent that the most ‘special’ elements of the relationship, that of intelligence and nuclear co-operation, were suspended. Yet, the relationship also witnessed considerable co-operation. This book offers new perspectives on US and UK policy towards British membership of the European Economic Community; demonstrates how US détente policies created strain in the ‘special relationship’; reveals the temporary shutdown of US-UK intelligence and nuclear co-operation; provides new insights in US-UK defence co-operation, and revaluates the US-UK relationship throughout the IMF Crisis.

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This chapter provides the introduction to the book and argues that existing interpretations of the US-UK relationship in the 1970s have emphasised conflict in the relationship to the degree that areas of cooperation, such as in the intelligence, nuclear, and the political realm, are often overlooked. It is here that the third element in the relationship, that of coercive diplomacy, is also highlighted (again an element entirely overlooked in existing accounts). A number of correctives about Edward Heath’s European ambitions, along with US policy towards this, are also highlighted. Thus, it is suggested here that British membership of the EEC was not a zero sum affair in regards to the US-UK relationship as depicted in existing accounts. Moreover, in contrast to the existing orthodoxy, the Nixon administration was rather more reticent about British membership of the EEC. A breakdown of every chapter’s core arguments is also made.

in A strained partnership?

The chapter begins with an overview of the main foreign policy aims of each country and an analysis of how foreign policy was created in each capital. From here, this chapter demonstrates the evolving nature of the US-UK relationship within the context of Britain’s application to join the European Economic Community, and American efforts to institutionalise détente with the USSR. It is shown throughout this chapter that the Nixon administration grew increasingly concerned that British membership of the EEC would permanently undermine the US-UK relationship, or, worse still, encourage the creation of a competitive power bloc that would be opposed to US interests. It is further highlighted how the détente policies of the Nixon administration caused apprehension within British policy-making circles in that superpower cooperation could lead to superpower condominium that would leave British interests severely undermined.

In spite of such areas of difference, this chapter does highlight the continuing political, military and diplomatic cooperation between the two sides, and thus acts as a balance to interpretations that emphasise only conflict within the relationship. Thus, we have discussion about US-UK cooperation in the realm of nuclear weapons, intelligence collection, British support for Nixon’s Vietnam policies, and Cold War diplomacy.

in A strained partnership?

Chapter 3 shows how the Nixon–Heath relationship deteriorated to such an extent that both Nixon and Kissinger would declare that the special relationship was over. Indeed, both intelligence and nuclear collaboration between the two sides were suspended on a number of occasions at Washington’s behest. This chapter highlights that US–UK relations had assumed a virtually antagonistic agenda because of differences surrounding what Henry Kissinger termed the ‘Year of Europe’. It is also in this chapter that the Nixon-Kissinger notion of coercive diplomacy, as usually associated with their diplomacy towards the USSR, Red China and North Vietnam, was also applied to their handling of the US-UK relationship. Therefore, in order to encourage Edward Heath to take a more positive attitude towards the ‘Year of Europe’; to persuade him to support the US’s Middle East diplomacy, and to convince the prime minister to side with the United States at the Washington Energy Conference, the United States, largely under the direction of Henry Kissinger, suspended nuclear and intelligence cooperation with their British ally and made a number of threats regarding future security commitments to Europe and to the world economic system. As shown, this had the desired effect upon London and resulted in Heath changing policy course.

in A strained partnership?
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Chapter 4 charts the conduct of US–UK relations following the return to office of Harold Wilson in March 1974. Wilson sought to re-establish closer US–UK relations and hoped it would engender a level of influence on US policy and that, in turn, it would allow the British to play a more decisive and influential world role. Wilson, however, was ultimately unsuccessful because his continual defence cutbacks to the UK military weakened the utility of Britain as an ally for the US, and the Cyprus crisis of 1974 demonstrated that British policy-makers had limited influence over US policy. Wilson’s defence cuts would be a constant irritant to Washington and again the intelligence and nuclear relationship between the two countries was utilised as a diplomatic tool by Washington to convince Wilson to limit the scope of his defence cuts. Ultimately, such efforts proved rather ineffectual. Yet, this chapter balances such judgments by demonstrating that political cooperation between the two sides remained remarkably close. Wilson continued to support the main currents of US international policy, and, even though threats were made about its cancellation, the nuclear and intelligence partnership continued.

in A strained partnership?

It is demonstrated throughout this chapter that US financial assistance, in the guise the British Prime Minister James Callaghan wanted never materialised during the IMF Crisis of 1976-77. Callaghan believed that Britain’s position with the Western alliance would ensure that the US would pressure the International Monetary Fund into providing preferential loan conditions for the United Kingdom. The Ford administration, however, did not believe Britain warranted such treatment and even efforts by the Callaghan government to link the continuation of British security efforts to a preferential loan were rebuffed. Ultimately, the years of economic and military decline meant that the United Kingdom was no longer important enough in Washington’s opinion to warrant such preferential treatment. Therefore, the efforts of Wilson and Callaghan to build a closer ‘special relationship’ failed to ultimately deliver the political capital when it was most needed.

in A strained partnership?
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The conclusions to the book are made within this chapter. It is argued here that the era of détente is really one where the US-UK relationship underwent severe strain but also demonstrated that it was extremely resolute given that areas of the most sensitivity, such as intelligence and nuclear cooperation, continued. In here three elements which are most apparent within the relationship, cooperation, competition, and coercion, are discussed. Cooperation is highlighted most clearly with regards to the intelligence and nuclear weapons realm. Competition is evident with regards to Britain’s EEC entry and how certain elements of Cold War diplomacy should be undertaken. Coercion was obvious throughout the ‘Year of Europe’ and towards Harold Wilson’s defence cuts. By bringing all three of these elements together, the US-UK relationship during 1969-77 is a rather more complicated than existing accounts suggest.

in A strained partnership?