The real "special relationship"

NEW YORK — There are many ways to measure the quality of a relationship.

Durability, loyalty, profitability and compatability, to name just a few. In diplomacy, ties between states rest inevitably on the mutual benefit each perceives in the arrangement. Does the relationship enhance or diminish our influence in the world? Does the upside of good ties with the other nation exceed the downside? Does the partnership make you more or less secure?

All fine questions, and if supporting country X makes your high-flung public rhetoric look consistent to boot, it’s a match!

Yet a recent argument with my wife reminded me of a more basic, more fundamental way of judging relationships: Can you live without it? On that count, in the world of 2009, for the United States only one country comes anywhere near qualifying: China.

If that bothers anyone, so be it. But that's reality.

Beijing and Washington have manufactured a relationship so thoroughly co-dependent that the United States cannot now afford to break it off. As HDS Greenway put it this week, China now views America as Too Big To Fail, primarily because of the trillion dollars or so Beijing has sunk into the U.S. economy. Neither side dare move against the other, and each wants the other's economy to roar back to health. Thus is born the new "Special Relationship."

 Certainly, other countries may flatter themselves by thinking they hold up the other end of a "special relationship" with the United States. The case for China is made daily, by everyone from Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to everyone who buys anything at Wal-Mart. If you're still not convinced, let's examine the case for the rest of the world. I'll start with the also-rans:

  • Mexico's proximity and the fact that many of its citizens live and work, legally and illegally, in the United States, gives it a place in this debate. It is one of our most important trading partners, a part of the NAFTA, and a voice for moderation in Latin America. Drug violence there has focused the American imagination a bit more than immigration, and as someone at the CIA keeps telling journalists, a collapse in Mexico may be the largest threat to the United States in the world. But a relationship especial? No way, Jose. At least not while half of all Americans regard Mexicans as unwelcome visitors. Without Mexico, we cut our own lawns. But I do anyway, and I survive.
  • Canada has some of the same things Mexico has going for it, except there are no Spanish-speaking Catholics to animate the anti-immigrant crowd, and "drug problems" there are more likely to refer to lines of Americans outside its pharmacies than anything violent. It's also our Number One trading partner. Culturally, Canada is much like us, except they don't much like us. But it's awfully boring, really, in a resentful way, and in the wider world, not a great force multiplier. Without them? Lumber gets expensive, hockey even more Eastern European. I can live with both.
  • India: In a world where logic ruled, this would be America's "Special Relationship." World's largest democracy, a nuclear power and a cultural powerhouse whose continued economic success would have the knock-on benefit of saving hundreds of millions from abject poverty. And "Slumdog" won an Oscar! In the Machiavellian sense, not a bad hedge against China, either. But we're stuck with Pakistan and China (both Indian rivals) for the forseeable future, and all my British friends still insist the best curries are in London, anyway.

Okay, now for the serious cases:

Britain: As the originator of the phrase, Churchill described the "special relationship" in the famous 1946 Iron Curtain speech as based on the "growing friendship and mutual understanding between our two vast but kindred systems of society."

Even in 1946, though, what made the relationship particularly special to Churchill was the access it afforded the fading British Empire to the post-War superpower. As many historians have noted, early 20th century America wound up financing the Empire's debt much the way China now underpins our own. Churchill knew Britain's only realistic "exit strategy" from Empire, short of total collapse, depended on tethering itself to America.

Still, anachronism that it is, the phrase "special relationship" gets rolled out by journalists each time an "Anglo-American summit" occurs. But it has lost its luster on this side of the Atlantic. These days, the "special relationship, legacy edition" still has enough juice in it to win Prime Minister Gordon Brown the honor of addressing a joint session of Congress, as he did earlier this month. It also gets you, say, first crack at the Military Governor of Basra job. But could America survive without Britain? Yes. Britain is (still) yesterday's man.

Israel: As the recipient of the largest share of U.S. foreign aid, and one of the very few allies allowed to buy top-of-the-line American weapons technology, Israel certainly has to be considered in any serious examination of the "special relationship" question. Frequently cited as America's closest ally in the Middle East, Israel returns the largesse in the form of intelligence on the Arab world. Sympathy for Israel runs deep in America.

Like all relationships, there are upsides and downsides. U.S. support for Israel is seized upon by Islamic militant groups like Al Qaeda to recruit adherents and justify terrorism, and America often finds itself isolated by its support for Israel, as the recent Israeli-Hamas war showed.

Still, Israeli influence in Washington has no match, a fact not even a British diplomat would dispute. Many conspiracy theorists go overboard in describing what the registered pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC can accomplish. But its power is real. The New York Times describes it as "the envy of other lobbies" and many regard it as the most powerful in Washington.

A recent example of its muscle: Charles Freeman, a career diplomat who until recently was President Obama's pick as head of the National Intelligence Council, blamed "the Israel Lobby" for engineering his downfall based on "a barrage of libelous distortions." AIPAC, of course, denies this, and Israeli officials deal with questions about its U.S. influence the same way it handles inquires about its nuclear arsenal. No comment. In the parlance of diplomacy, that's called strategic ambiguity.

So if Israel is a useful and effective ally, albeit with sharp elbows, it's hardly a make or break friendship. Being a special case is different than having a Special Relationship, and they still need us more than we need them.

The fact is, there is only one nation on earth right now that passes the "can't live without" test. That nation is China. The question, of course, is whether we can learn to live with it, too.

Michael Moran is Executive Editor of, website of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Other recent columns by Michael Moran:

Leaking like a SIV or too big to fail?

Ireland should look east

Beyond "Af-Pak"