The Not-So-Secret Weapon in the Special Relationship

The Not-So-Secret Weapon in the Special Relationship

Among Queen Elizabeth II’s many talents was an ability to turn the most powerful man on the planet into an overexcited fanboy.

The Queen met 13 presidents during her 70-year reign: Every commander-in-chief from Harry Truman to Joe Biden, with the exception of LBJ. As the tributes of living former presidents have made clear, she stood apart from the many world leaders and foreign dignitaries that a president meets.

“Having tea with Her Majesty — and her Corgis — is among our fondest memories of the presidency,” read a statement from George W. Bush. “What a grand and beautiful lady she was — there was nobody like her,” enthused Donald Trump. Even the usually cool-headed Barack Obama, in an interview released on the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee in June, acknowledged it was difficult to maintain his composure “when you’re visiting Her Majesty.”

A dive into history finds multiple protocol breaches by nervous American leaders, none more awkward than Jimmy Carter kissing the Queen’s mother on the lips. It reveals Ronald Reagan preparing for an important 1983 swing through Europe by, yes, gearing up for the high-stakes diplomacy, but also worrying about whether he had the correct gear to go horseback riding with the Queen. It turns up a 1951 trip to America during which Harry Truman remarked on meeting the heir to the throne, “When I was a little boy, I read about a fairy princess — and there she is.” Then-Prime Minister Harold Macmillan would describe her next trip to the United States, in 1957, as such a success that it “buried George III for good and all.”

What set the Queen apart in this way? It wasn’t the pageantry, lavish banquets or her arguably unparalleled fame. Part of the explanation lies in the fact that presidents were not only meeting the embodiment of America’s closest ally and its past, but also, later in her reign, someone who knew their predecessors better than they did or ever would, and could therefore see them in correct historical scale.

Her ability to charm and even strike up friendships with U.S. presidents was a not-so-secret weapon that helped make — and keep — the “special relationship” special. President Joe Biden was clear about that political significance in his tribute, describing the Queen as a “stateswoman of unmatched dignity and constancy who deepened the bedrock Alliance between the United Kingdom and the United States.”

It helped that the woman who was closely followed and supported by American Anglophiles appears to have been something of an Americanophile. Just as the special relationship is about more than the ties between two heads of state or heads of government, the Queen’s bond with America went beyond its leaders. Like many Britons of her generation — and like the modern Britain over which she reigned — the Second World War was a formative experience in which America’s contribution was decisive and unforgettable. On a more personal note, she only took a handful of foreign vacations during her reign, but five of them were to America, often — and perhaps a little improbably — to Kentucky horse country.

The great-great-great-great granddaughter of the king who lost America acknowledged a further debt to Britain’s former colony beyond the wartime alliance. In 1973, the UK government was sounded out on the idea of Elizabeth II attending celebrations three years later to mark America’s bicentennial. One of the prime minister’s advisors wrote a snooty note to Buckingham Palace: “One would wish to consider whether it was right for the Queen to be associated with the celebration of a rebellion from the British Crown.” The Queen would go on to make the trip, though she arrived on July 6, because, as one Embassy official told the New York Times, “July 4th was really pushing it. Forgiveness can only go so far.”

In a speech marking the occasion, the Queen herself would be more gracious. “It seems to me that Independence Day should be celebrated as much in Britain as in America,” she said to a crowd in Philadelphia. “Not in rejoicing at the separation of the American colonies from the British Crown but in sincere gratitude to the Founding Fathers of this great Republic for having taught Britain a very valuable lesson… We learnt to respect the right of others to govern themselves in their own ways. Without that great act in the cause of liberty, performed in Independence Hall two hundred years ago, we could never have transformed an Empire into a Commonwealth.”

Given this fondness for America, the Queen’s death doesn’t just mean that Britain has lost a diplomatic and soft-power trump card, but also the guardian angel of the special relationship. Will her son, King Charles III, be able to fill that gap?

For British officials eager for him to step into his mother’s diplomatic role, Charles poses a number of problems. The first is that, through no fault of his own, he simply cannot provide the semi-mystical link to the past that his mother came to represent to the whole world. Another, which threatens to make things particularly difficult in the United States, is that Charles is a far more political figure than his mother. Whereas she stuck unstintingly to the narrowly defined role of constitutional monarch — someone above the fray who intervenes only when strictly necessary — he has been far more active in society during his long wait for the throne. The prince’s political activity has focused on climate change and the environment, hardly uncontroversial issues on this side of the pond, though more contentious stateside. As prince, Charles insisted that the rules are different for monarchs and heirs to the throne, promising to engage in the political sphere far less often once he became king. But it’s nonetheless easy to see how he might become a more politicized figure than his mother here in America.

If you think a country’s standing and sway in the world is determined by more than its wealth or military might, then it’s hard not to see the death of Queen Elizabeth II as anything other than a grave diplomatic loss for the United Kingdom. The departure of the last living embodiment of a kind of British greatness that is easily understood on the world stage — and in America — will only add to anxiety about Britain’s place in the world and its relationship with its closest ally. But that one-sided anxiousness has been a feature of the special relationship since the term was coined by Winston Churchill in a 1946 speech in Fulton, Missouri.

For all the ways in which the Queen helped make the special relationship what it is, her link with America is also a reminder that the UK-U.S. ties cannot be reduced to one or two individuals. They represent something far deeper, rooted in history, values, culture, commerce and defense. Elizabeth II knew that. And if her American counterparts doubted it when they were sworn in, they usually saw sense once they’d had tea with the Queen.

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