Shifting Transatlantic Tides: Anglo-American Imperial Role Reversals

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The UK and US are traditionally considered neocolonial powers that imperialize the Global South. However, they have also imperialized each other. While the US nominally seceded from the British Empire, the British incorporated the US into its “informal empire” from 1776 to the late 19th century through economic, political, military, and sociocultural domination. Reversing roles after WWII, the US adopted key elements of the British imperial playbook to subjugate the UK as part of its peripheral elite. The US-UK “special relationship” is more than a one-sided alliance, but actually a unique arrangement in which the UK accepted American imperial domination to retain some degree of global influence and avoid the Thucydides trap. This paper will chart the historical role reversal between the UK and US, beginning with how Britain imperially dominated the US between 1776 and the late 19th century, evaluating how the US escaped that domination, analyzing how the US imperially dominated the UK by the 20th century, and ending with the imperial implications of the Anglo-American “special relationship.”

Britain’s “Informal Empire” in America

While historians often decree that the American nation was founded in 1776, that date marks only the Thirteen Colonies’ formal independence. The nascent US remained extensively dependent on the British economically, militarily, socioculturally, and politically well into the 19th century, with Southern plantation-owning Americans forming part of the British peripheral elite. Although Britain’s dominant imperial position in the US slowly eroded throughout the 19th century, the US only became effectively independent from the British “informal empire” by the turn of the 20th century. Britain held significant imperial economic, political, military, and sociocultural domination over the early American nation.

Even after formal American independence, the British continued extracting economic resources from the fledgling US through trade and finance. By the early 19th century, the US and Britain were each other’s biggest trading partners, even though the Anglo-American relationship was one of British resource extraction. Britain would import and process raw American cotton, tobacco, and wheat to create high-value industrial goods, and the US would then import the finished British goods.1 Such raw material exports only rose into the 19th century, with the British commitment to free trade and repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 further facilitating cheaper American raw material imports and solidifying the extractive relationship.2 At the same time, London-based banks like Barings backed American export development and westward expansion, with a fourth of US public debt held in England in 1818.3 In this way, British capital helped the American peripheral elite exploit peripheral Native American tribes and Mexicans by funding “manifest destiny.”4 Such expansion would facilitate cheaper raw material imports for the British; it would also further the British strategy of divide-and-conquer through weakening the US by dividing the North and South over slavery’s expansion.5 Simultaneously, however, American reliance on British capital caused British market conditions to profoundly affect the US through financial panics in 1819, 1837, and 1857.6 Furthermore, the imperial relationship is evident during the Civil War with the Confederacy’s wishful bet that the British would directly intervene on its behalf to maintain supplies of “King Cotton,” which failed to materialize since the British could increase cotton imports from India instead.7 The Southern plantation-owning peripheral elite depended far more on Britain than Britain depended on them.

Britain manipulated power dynamics between America’s Southern plantation-owning peripheral elite and other Americans to exert control over the US. Especially with the rise of Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans, who claimed states could nullify federal laws, the early US had strong state sovereignty and a relatively weak federal government.8 Such an arrangement left the US open to British divide-and-rule strategies. Britain encouraged the South to become economically dependent on raw cotton exports to Britain through its free trade policies, which gave it significant leverage over the US. With wealthy Southern plantation owners profiting from “King Cotton,” Southern interests often dominated the federal government, ensuring that the North’s industries would never overtake Britain’s. Such an arrangement also allowed the British imperial core to benefit from slavery and foment dissent in the US indirectly. Although Britain banned slavery in 1834, it soon implemented free trade policies, allowing it to fully benefit from exploitative slavery in its US periphery for decades after it was abolished in the formal British Empire. Britain could therefore clear its imperial core’s moral conscience while allowing its secessionist American periphery to tear itself apart.

Even before Britain banned slavery and adopted free trade, however, Britain’s intentions were already apparent with the Nullification crisis in 1832, in which South Carolina threatened to secede from the US due to import tariffs on foreign goods. Elite white plantation owners in South Carolina feared such tariffs would create retaliatory tariffs that would hurt their cotton exports to Britain.9 Prominent Americans like Senator Henry Clay recognized the British strategy, noting, “It is not free trade that they are recommending to our acceptance. It is, in effect, the British colonial system that we are invited to adopt; and, if their policy prevail, it will lead, substantially, to the recolonization of these States, under the commercial dominion of Great Britain.”10 As long as Southern plantation slavery continued and the North failed to develop its industries, the US would remain under British domination.

European powers were the leading British military rivals for imperial prestige throughout pre-20th century America, and the British enlisted the US peripheral elite to help contain its European competitors. Initially, the British forcefully impressed tens of thousands of Americans into the Royal Navy, press-ganging British-born naturalized Americans to fight in the Napoleonic wars.11 After the Napoleonic wars and the War of 1812, however, the British stopped impressing American sailors and focused on having the US help contain its European rivals indirectly. By guaranteeing free trade on the high seas, the Royal Navy enabled Britain to sustain an extractive economic relationship with the US. Maintaining such a relationship with the American plantation-owning elite through military means ensured that Britain could maximize its economic output compared to its competitors. Simultaneously, Britain supported the American Monroe Doctrine with the Royal Navy as it sought to keep its European rivals out of the Americas.12 By relying on the Royal Navy’s protection, the US could redirect defense budget allocations to boosting economic output instead. Yet such a dependence became a curse when the British indirectly supported its Southern plantation-owning peripheral elite against the Union blockade through blockade running13 and naval shipbuilding.14 Allowing the South to fall would threaten Britain’s short-term economic security relative to its European rivals, although the British could not justify directly aiding its Southern slave-owning peripheral elite to its imperial core—after all, Britain was ostensibly anti-slavery.

Socioculturally, the British retained a normative hierarchy distinguishing between its imperial core and its American periphery well into the 20th century. Astutely observing American society from 1831 to 1832, Alexis de Tocqueville saw “Americans” as “Anglo-Americans” and “the English race in America,” using all three terms synonymously. Beyond America’s foundation atop the English language, British common law, and British Enlightenment values (e.g., Locke’s life, liberty, and property), British Anglicanism, literature, social customs, and classical liberal arts education remained the most prestigious in the nascent US. The American plantation-owning peripheral elite largely congregated around British Anglican influences through the Episcopal Church, with enslavers becoming the Church’s financial foundation.15 Counting two-thirds of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the wealthiest members among America’s old aristocratic families, Episcopalians adopted the Anglican upper-class attitude to create prep schools, colleges, and clubs.16 In terms of literature, Anglo-American abolitionists and religious movement members often corresponded with each other, but British literature remained dominant.17 American literary and philosophical movements like Transcendentalism and Dark Romanticism remained heavily influenced by British Romanticism.18 Ralph Waldo Emerson even wrote in his 1856 English Traits, “The American is only the continuation of the English genius into new conditions.”19 Regarding the English language, Noah Webster’s American English dictionary saw significant competition from Joseph Worcester, whose British English dictionary was much more popular among the pre-Civil War literary elite.20 Socially, the American elite looked to the British for legitimacy, marrying off their wealthy daughters into noble but less wealthy British families to enhance both families’ cumulative social status and financial wealth.21 On education, American universities and boarding schools were heavily modeled after the British classical liberal arts pedagogy featuring Christian theology, Greek, Latin, literature, and philosophy.22

America Unshackled

By the late 19th century, British imperial domination eroded over the US, and America underwent “decolonization.” The US sought to create its own overseas empire through direct imperialism, imitating the British Empire’s initial territory-based expansion. As it grew in economic, political, military, and sociocultural power, the US would soon become a great power. America’s early overseas imperial endeavors would eventually usher in a monumental reversal in the global balance of power, setting the stage for the soon-to-be American Century.

With the Union’s victory during the Civil War, the US entered a “Gilded Age” and rapidly developed American industries and financial markets, freeing itself from British economic domination. Without opposition from Southern plantation owners, the North raised import tariffs to protect American industries from British competition and filled millions of exploitative industrial jobs with an influx of cheap immigrant labor.23,24 Simultaneously, the US tripled its railroad tracks25 and developed telephone and telegraph systems26 that would economically and politically link the transcontinental nation like never before. The Reconstruction Era also spurred inventions like the light bulb and internal combustion engineer, which brought American industrial productivity to new heights.27 By 1890, the US had become the world’s largest economy.28 The US would soon become a net finished goods exporter by 1900, and its relative economic power would only grow over the next few decades.29 Financially, America’s rapid industrialization and Congress’ National Banking Acts of 1863 and 1864, which injected federal money into the US economy and created a stable uniform currency, allowed US financial markets to develop rapidly.30 Thus, US financial markets only grew more powerful, setting the stage for Britain becoming a US debtor by WWI.31 American industrial power was already built off the backs of non-white Americans, and the next thing the elite robber barons needed was an export market for America’s growing industrial base.

After the Civil War, American nationalism flourished, so the British could no longer significantly manipulate power dynamics amongst the US states and regions. The US emerged with a strong federal government, extensive transcontinental economic ties, newly emancipated slaves, and its former Southern political elite suppressed under martial law.32 Before the Civil War, 11 of the first 12 constitutional amendments limited the federal government’s power; starting with the Thirteenth Amendment at the end of the Civil War, six of the following seven expanded federal control over the states. The “United States” linguistically changed as well: before 1861, the US was generally referred to as a plural noun; after 1865, it became a singular noun. Lincoln’s speeches also revealed a growing American nationalism, as he mentioned the “Union” 20 times but not “nation” once in his 1861 inaugural speech. By his 1863 Gettysburg Address, Lincoln dropped the “Union” rhetoric, speaking of the American “nation” instead.33 After the Civil War, American nationalists sought to rid the US of British free trade imperialism, imitating their former colonizer in seeking export markets for tariff-protected American goods through an overseas American empire.34

Soon, ideas of American exceptionalism abounded as the US entered the global subjugation-based imperial club on equal standing with Britain. After the US victory during the 1898 Spanish-American War, Senator Albert J. Beveridge exclaimed, “We are enlisted in the cause of American supremacy, which will never end until American commerce has made the conquest of the world; until American citizenship has become the lord of civilization, and the stars and stripes the flag of flags throughout the world… Fellow Americans, we are God’s chosen people.”35 In this way, the US sought to imitate British overseas imperial subjugation and carry what Englishman Rudyard Kipling described as the “White Man’s Burden,” violently quelling independence movements in the Philippines and limiting self-determination in other newly acquired territories.36 Today, those living in US peripheral territories are still considered second-class US nationals without voting rights, a conspicuous element of political imperialism. By 1901, the Grand Army of the Republic called for a national Flag Day and sought to circulate American flags to all continental and colonial public schools, noting that “Six hundred Flags [already] fly over the schools of Porto [sic] Rico—four hundred are on the way to the Philippines—and three hundred and twenty… will soon cross the seas to Hawaii.”37 Beyond the implied forced assimilation, such sentiment foretold the 1904 Roosevelt Corollary as well, in which Theodore Roosevelt justified proactive US intervention throughout the Americas also with the “White Man’s Burden,” asserting that “Chronic wrongdoing…may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation.”38

By the turn of the century, the US began its own military competition for imperial prestige. Transformative American military theorists like Alfred Thayer Mahan took crucial lessons from the British Empire and published The Influence of Sea Power upon History, arguing that the US should follow in the British imperial footsteps by seeking export markets through a merchant navy, battleship navy, and a global network of naval bases.39 Thus, Congress responded to the “Big Navy” proponents by passing the Battleship Act of 1890, which authorized the construction of modern battleships and began an era of increased American naval engagement.40 In 1895, the US demanded that Britain arbitrate its border dispute with Venezuela or risk war, indicating that it could now substantiate the Monroe Doctrine without the Royal Navy.41 By 1898, America’s new armored battleships destroyed the Spanish fleet, rising to military prominence.42 In 1903, the US again showed its willingness to use military force to secure American economic and strategic interests, sending US Navy ships to prevent Colombia from retaking Panama from rebels. Thus, the US could better coerce Panama into letting it build and control the Panama Canal Zone.43 Seeking to flaunt American naval strength globally, Roosevelt soon sent the “Great White Fleet” around the world in 1907, emphasizing America’s new naval power in a symbolic representation of the “White Man’s burden.”44

With this increased nationalism, Britain’s sociocultural dominance soon began to subside in the US. Britain’s Anglican influences, literature, social customs, and classical liberal arts education systems gradually lost their allure as a distinct American identity formed. While Episcopalianism remained influential, its diminished Southern financial base, along with the influx of Catholic and other-Protestant-denomination immigrants, reduced its proportion of adherents among the US population.45 Liberal Christian “Social Gospel” movements became mainstream, seeking to break from the theological orthodoxy.46 By the 1850s, anti-slavery books like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin signaled a shift toward increased American literary diffusion, with Stowe’s book selling 300,000 copies in the US compared to 1.5 million copies in Britain in 1852. In fact, her book became the second best-selling book of the 19th century behind the Bible.47 By the latter half of the 19th century, writers like Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Mark Twain gained prominence for their distinctively American writing styles.48 Linguistically, Merriam-Webster’s 1864 American Dictionary soon overtook Worcester’s British English version.49 America’s nouveau riche embraced American Renaissance arts and architecture, offering to beautify urban centers with uniquely American styles.50 US education also began diverging from the British classical liberal arts style with the 1862 Morrill Act, provisioning practical instruction in science, agriculture, military tactics, and engineering.51 Even established institutions like Harvard allowed students to avoid learning classical Latin and Greek by 1898,52 far earlier than Oxford, which abolished those entry requirements in 1960.53

America’s Neocolonial Domination of Post-WWII Britain

By the early 20th century, Britain gradually conceded to the US neocolonial domination to retain some degree of global influence and avoid the Thucydides trap. In 1902, Prime Minister Lord Salisbury had already wistfully declared, “It is very sad, but I am afraid America is bound to forge ahead and nothing can restore the equality between us.”54 Two years later, Britain’s First Sea Lord John Fisher acknowledged that if war happened, “under no conceivable circumstances… [could Britain] escape an overwhelming and humiliating defeat by the United States… [so it was] an utter waste of time to prepare for it.”55 US economic and military power was critical in WWI, with American credit bankrolling Britain and American troops breaking the Western Front stalemate.56 Yet while Wilson sought increased American global engagement through the League of Nations after WWI, he could not overcome strong American isolationist sentiment. Regardless, the US and British navies received equal warship tonnage quotas during the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, indicating naval parity.57 By the time of the Fall of France in 1940, however, the global balance of power had further shifted. Britain desperately needed the US, and FDR imperially proclaimed that the US would “be the great arsenal of democracy”58 by the end of the year, symbolically indicating the hegemonic power transfer from the British to the US. With the Destroyers for Bases Agreement, the US soon provided Britain with 50 old US Navy destroyers in exchange for 99-year leases of British military bases in the Americas.59 Soon afterward, the US provided equipment mainly to Britain through the 1941 Lend-Lease Act.60 By August 1941, Britain’s impending imperial decline became evident as it jointly declared the Atlantic Charter on American terms, outlining post-war global liberal ideals such as self-determination, free trade, freedom of the seas, and international cooperation.61 Publicly declaring global self-determination principles ran directly contrary to the British Empire’s legitimacy, causing Britain to lose control over vast swaths of its imperial periphery in the coming decades.62 After the shock of Pearl Harbor and WWII, the US finally abandoned any lingering isolationist tendencies, adopting many of Britain’s former neocolonial imperial strategies to enforce the Atlantic Charter through a global “informal empire.” The US synthesized Theodore Roosevelt’s “big stick diplomacy,” Taft’s “dollar diplomacy,” and Wilson’s “moral diplomacy” from the Americas to the world, extending complementary military, economic, and sociocultural levers to facilitate political domination. Through these instruments of imperial power, the UK became subjugated as part of the American empire’s peripheral elite.

The US incorporated the post-WWII UK into its imperial peripheral elite, using British-style “free trade” and American financial leverage to force the UK to help extend global American economic power. The US emerged relatively unscathed from WWII as the world’s foremost economic hegemon, having accumulated 70% of the world’s gold reserves by 1947. Simultaneously, the UK went from the world’s leading creditor to debtor, with most of the debt owed to the US.63 Thus, the US could finally adopt Mahan’s British-derived naval power doctrine as the US Navy took the Royal Navy’s role in ensuring global free trade, which inherently benefited the highly industrialized American core through open markets and resource exploitation. The US took measures to guarantee its leading role in the global financial order at the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference, establishing the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to respectively maintain exchange rate stability (later to offer bailouts) and provide development assistance. Since the US had the dominant role in designing these international economic institutions, it ensured that they would be based in Washington DC, and only the US held veto power. However, the US also provided a disproportionate share of voting power to its imperial peripheral elite allies like Britain and Japan. Controlled by the US and its peripheral elite partners, the IMF and World Bank disproportionately supported US-allied “First World” countries during the Cold War, and these institutions still actively avoid policy proposals contrary to US interests today.64

Britain was forced to support US economic dominance due to its capricious post-WWII financial state, with the 1946 Anglo-American loan stipulating that Britain needed to lift capital controls and restore sterling-dollar convertibility. This agreement dramatically enhanced the US dollar’s strength and reserve currency status, as many countries took the opportunity to abandon the weak pound sterling for US dollars. Yet US policymakers eventually allowed Britain to suspend convertibility since it was precipitating a dollar shortage that threatened to collapse the UK’s weak post-WWII economy.65 The US needed to tread carefully to ensure that communist movements would not overthrow its ruling British peripheral elite, lest Britain fall under the domination of America’s Soviet rival. Beyond forced convertibility, the US coerced the UK into weakening and soon removing its protectionist “imperial preference” tariffs through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade conferences.66 Thus, the US could infiltrate markets and resources previously under British influence. Such American economic infiltration also facilitated the Marshall Plan, albeit propping up European anti-communist peripheral elite states like the UK was also a vital component of the Plan. While the US assisted its British peripheral elite in overthrowing Iran’s nationalist prime minister, the US only did so to facilitate American anti-communist strategic interests—not to help the UK maintain an exploitative oil extraction relationship with its Iranian periphery. Secretary of State Dean Acheson initially presumed Iran’s nationalist prime minister could prevent Soviet expansion into the Middle East and sought to have Britain negotiate with Iran. The US only agreed to help the British overthrow Iran’s prime minister after he won backing from Iran’s communist party, as the US feared Iranian oil could fall into Soviet hands.67 Over time, the Anglo-American economic disparity has doubled in proportion,68 with the UK’s GDP going from around one-fourth of the US in 194569 to around one-eighth today,70 further reinforcing American economic dominance.

Today, the US maintains a large trade surplus with the UK for both goods and services while holding enormous financial investment leverage over the UK through FDI.71 The US benefits from its current economic relationship with the UK to such an extent that it refuses to change it by signing joint US-UK trade agreements.72 The increased US-UK GDP and trade disparity is likely caused at least in part by the US historically forcing British decolonization and “imperial preference” removal in favor of free trade, allowing American products and services to enter previously protected British colonial markets. British decolonization has also allowed the US to build resource exploitation transportation infrastructure in former British colonies like Zambia. To lessen the imperial connotations of such resource extraction, the US claims that it will provide clean energy infrastructure in the “Lobito Corridor.”73 Yet the project conveniently allows the US to exploit poor labor standards in order to access cheaper raw minerals inputs, allowing US companies to sell finished clean energy products to the Lobito Corridor countries for higher profit. Although the US may not directly exploit natural resources from Great Britain today, the digital age’s raw material may well be talent, which the US frequently extracts from Britain. After all, capital-rich American tech firms are regularly facilitating talent drain from top British universities and startups.74

The US has made the post-WWII British peripheral elite dependent on it for global political influence, ensuring that the UK often aligns with US foreign policy objectives. While some may claim that the Anglo-American “special relationship” is one of shared values and interests,75 it is clear that the US adopted British “informal empire” strategies to create a one-sided “special relationship.” Churchill even coined the term “special relationship” to address how Britain needed the US to maintain the post-WWII world order, admitting to his Foreign Office, “It is my deepest conviction that unless Britain and the United States are joined in a special relationship… another destructive war will come to pass.”76 Today, British policy posits that “The US relationship is our single most important bilateral relationship,”77 yet US policymakers do not echo the same sentiment. While the US acknowledges that “The United States has no closer Ally than the United Kingdom,”78 US officials have referred to a “special relationship” with other US allies like Japan, South Korea, Canada, France, Poland, Mexico, and Ireland.79 Furthermore, Obama himself highlighted that “The relationship between the United States and China is the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century.”80

Yet the British serve a unique peripheral elite role in the American empire since the UK retains strategic home and imperial territory. The US also adopted imperial strategies over international organizations, similar to how the British used the League of Nations to extend its influence.81 Influenced by the Anglo-American Atlantic Charter and immediate post-war US strategic objectives, the US designed the UN to be an intergovernmental organization headquartered in New York with permanent veto-wielding Security Council members who were US allies during WWII, such as the UK. Although Soviet-American relations soon deteriorated, the US, supported by its British peripheral elite, still actively leveraged the UN against Soviet influences. This American anti-Soviet agenda is evident through UN-sanctioned mechanisms like the American-led UN Command during the Korean War or US support of the ROC representing China until the Sino-Soviet split.82 Today, the UN continues to advance US economic interests, favorably awarding contracts to US companies.83 Beyond the UN, the US and UK spearheaded NATO to ensure US domination over Europe by containing the spread of Soviet influence, continuing US military domination in Europe, and guaranteeing European markets for American exports. The US even strategically encoded its own hegemony and the UK’s peripheral elite role into NATO’s structure, ensuring the Supreme Allied Commander is always American and the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander is always British.84

As evidenced by the Suez Crisis, the US was willing to publicly condemn British actions and help dismantle the British Empire when convenient for America’s anti-Soviet strategy.85 The US not only unilaterally denied IMF assistance to Britain and the UK’s request to delay its annual post-WWII debt payment to the US, but also threatened to sell US-held Sterling bonds, which would subsequently devalue the pound and facilitate food and energy shortages in the UK.86 Such US actions indicate that the US would pursue its anti-Soviet strategic objectives and align with anti-communist decolonized states independently of the UK. Given the Anglo-American power imbalance, the UK would have to follow US dictums. Yet the opposite did not apply—the US would have free reign to adopt pre-Civil War British neocolonial divide-and-conquer tactics to counter communist influence through proxy wars and direct military interventions. In fact, the US militarily overthrew the newly-communist Commonwealth nation of Grenada against British opposition in 1983. Although the US embarrassed the UK by ignoring Thatcher’s advice, she still publicly called for a “swift American success,”87 privately noting that “Britain’s friendship with the United States must on no account be jeopardized.”88

By the 21st century, the UK would not just verbally support internationally condemned American imperial endeavors but actually militarily contribute to them. Blair corroborated both the false American “WMD” rationale for invading Iraq and the American imperial neoconservative objective of spreading democracy to Iraq, naively declaring, “If we are wrong, we will have destroyed a threat that, at its least is responsible for inhuman carnage and suffering. That is something I am confident history will forgive.”89 Amidst international condemnation and opposition even from US allies like France and Germany, the UK still strongly supported the Iraq War, becoming the most significant military contributor to the US-led Iraq coalition.90 Even former President Carter called Blair “Abominable. Loyal, blind, apparently subservient.”91 Beyond Iraq, Blair publicly asserted his belief in continued American global hegemony (insinuating US dominance in the “special relationship”), declaring to Congress that “[t]here is no more dangerous theory in international politics today than that we need to balance the power of America with other competitor powers, different poles around which nations gather,”92 causing commentators to disparagingly dub him “Bush’s poodle.”93 Blair justified his rhetoric and actions by claiming that closely aligning with the US provides the UK with more global clout,94 reinforcing the idea that the UK is part of the American empire’s peripheral elite.

More recently, the UK has aligned with the US in declaring China a strategic competitor,95 following its rhetoric with actions such as acceding to US demands to ban Huawei from British telecom networks. While the US throws carrots like the 2021 New Atlantic Charter to its British “poodle” to create the perception of a less one-sided “special relationship,”96 the British dependence on the US has only grown. After all, the UK joined the EU in the 1970s to try counterbalancing the US-dominated Anglo-American relationship but has still seen an “Americanization” of its foreign policy.97 Brexit will likely only exacerbate Britain’s further entrenchment into the peripheral elite of the American empire.98

The US actively incorporates the British peripheral elite into its imperial military competition for prestige. By the Falklands War, the UK was militarily dependent on the US to provide necessary intelligence, fuel, supplies, and logistical support to help it project power across the Atlantic.99 The UK has even become critically dependent on the US military-industrial complex, and the US continues to encourage the UK to buy more weapons from the American defense industry.100 In fact, the entire British nuclear deterrent is designed, manufactured, and maintained in the US.101 As the British military has atrophied in size and power projection, the UK has become highly dependent on the US to uphold freedom of the seas as well. Taking advantage of the UK’s economic, political, and military dependence, the US uses Britain’s strategic colonial empire to its advantage. Building upon the US base access premise set by the Destroyers for Bases Agreement, the US has deployed nuclear bombers and thousands of troops to US military bases in the “unsinkable aircraft carrier” of Great Britain alone, allowing it to project power throughout Europe and the Mediterranean.102 This access helped the US better check Soviet airpower and launch counterterrorism operations into those regions, such as bombing Libya in response to state-sponsored terrorism.103

Besides Britain’s home islands, the US also maintains military bases in strategically vital islands like British Diego Garcia104 and Cyprus,105 allowing it to use the remnants of the British Empire to project power across the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean, respectively. For example, Diego Garcia was extensively used in all of America’s Middle East wars over the past 40 years.106 Joint US-UK bases on British Overseas Territories allow the US to deflect direct imperial blame for displacing indigenous peoples107 and infringing upon self-determination108 onto the British. Thus, the US can have the UK take the responsibility for rejecting the UN-supported ICJ ruling declaring the Chagos Archipelago (including Diego Garcia) as part of Mauritius,109 preserving the imperial core’s reputation at the expense of the peripheral elite.

Beyond overt measures, the US and UK share intelligence through the UKUSA Agreement and Five Eyes, albeit intelligence sharing is also lopsided as the US uses the British Empire’s dependencies and Commonwealth affiliates such as pre-1997 Hong Kong to gather intelligence.110 The strategic location of Britain’s home islands alone allows the US to intercept and analyze transatlantic internet cables.111 Apart from collection, the UK has also played a peripheral elite role in helping the American empire violate human rights—helping fund and facilitate US extraordinary renditions112 and possibly assisting the NSA in skirting the Fourth Amendment by spying on US citizens through GCHQ.113

The UK’s peripheral elite role in supporting US military domination is also clearly evident through its direct military interventions. To help the US contain Soviet expansion, the UK covertly trained, armed, and funded the Mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan War.114 Soon after, the UK sent tens of thousands of troops to help the US liberate Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War.115 In the following decade, the UK perhaps most blatantly revealed its role as part of the American empire’s peripheral elite by helping the US invade Iraq amidst international condemnation. More recently, the UK has subserviently cooperated with the US military’s competition with China by joining AUKUS, to which the French scornfully declared, “We can see that this is a [British] return into the American lap and a form of accepted vassalisation.”

Although the UK retains distinctive customs and traditions, the US established a normative American sociocultural dominance that infiltrates British society. While some in the US scoff at the UK’s fall from imperial grace,116 some in the UK stereotype Americans out of an envious resentment of American power.117 Clearly, the US-UK power imbalance has also bled into the sociocultural realm. The ​​English language, common law, and Enlightenment values remain derived from British influences in early America, albeit modern American contributions to the English language, law, and politics seem to outpace those of modern-day Britain.118 American influences also increasingly infiltrate British politics, media, social movements, social customs, and education. Although the Anglican Church of England remains the state-sanctioned church in the UK, its membership has declined in the UK by 15-20% over the past decade.119 Simultaneously, the US Episcopal Church’s membership has also dropped by 21%.120 As religion overall declines in the West, political ideology seems to be replacing it.121 Correspondingly, American political ideologies seem to be permeating British democracy, whether with party primaries, presidential-style party leader debates, or a British Supreme Court.122 Even American-style “dark money and dodgy data” are increasingly infiltrating British politics.123

American media and entertainment are also pervading the UK, with the British film industry so dependent on Hollywood that its strikes halted British film production.124 US-based media platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+ are among the most popular streaming services in the UK,125 and the most popular internet and social media platforms in the UK are owned by US-based tech giants like Meta and X.126 Corroborated by Google Books English spelling and vocabulary trends, US media and entertainment domination has even significantly precipitated the “Americanization” of British literature since 1945, sharply accelerating even more in the digital era.127 As a result, American social movements like Black Lives Matter are also pervading the UK. Such social movements may have virtuous objectives in the US, but facsimileing them worldwide inevitably serves as a form of cultural imperialism by reflecting American experiences elsewhere, stoking unnecessary fear and social tension. For example, the British journalist Louise Perry notes that “American campaigners against police violence point to the UK as a model to aspire to, and when you look at the numbers side-by-side their reasoning becomes clear: last year, a total of four people died after being shot by UK police; in the US, that figure was 1,021. And yet one 15-year-old black Londoner interviewed recently on BBC News at Ten earnestly reported that every time he hears sirens he feels fearful, convinced that the colour of his skin is likely to result in being killed at the hands of police. There is a good chance that this young man, having likely been influenced in part by an American narrative about the lethal threat posed to him by police, would be too afraid to call the emergency services if his life were in danger.”128

Aside from social movements, American consumer culture has also infiltrated the UK. US companies like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola serve as more direct indicators of cultural imperialism,129 and have facilitated the lasting Americanization of British consumer goods businesses.130 Such American-style consumerization has directly contributed to wasteful and environmentally damaging trends like fast fashion in the UK.131 Even American fast food has been assimilated into British culture, with American comfort food like cupcakes, burgers, and hot dogs infiltrating the UK.132 On the other hand, British food retains a bland reputation in the US as a legacy of WWII rations.133 In education, the UK has adopted American-style high schools for its “state school” system, replacing traditional grammar schools.134 Furthermore, British higher education also adopted American professional and applied science models for business135 and engineering education.136

Future and Implications of the “Special Relationship”

The UK is likely to become more deeply entrenched in the American empire’s peripheral elite, helping to uphold US global hegemony. Especially with Brexit and the UK detaching itself from its European partners, the UK will rationally have to further align with US policy to maintain some vestige of global influence. By doing so, the UK risks accepting further American economic, political, military, and sociocultural dominance. Such American imperial domination ironically draws upon neocolonial methods that Britain itself used to imperialize America from its founding through the late 1800s.

The post-Brexit 2021 New Atlantic Charter offers at least eight examples. Like the original Atlantic Charter, the New Atlantic Charter reflects commitments that the British peripheral elite will help the US uphold, adapt, or violate to serve US strategic interests.137 First, the US and UK “resolve to defend the principles, values, and institutions of democracy and open societies,” although the UK is likely to support the US in overthrowing democracies like 1953 Iran when it serves America’s strategic interest. Second, promising to “strengthen the institutions, laws, and norms that sustain international co-operation… and guard against those that would undermine them” alludes to how the UK will help maintain the international order in a way that benefits the US. For example, although China is not a direct geostrategic threat to the UK in the way that the Soviet Union was during the Cold War, the UK has already shown it will join US-led initiatives like AUKUS aimed at containing China. Third, the US and UK claim to be “united behind the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and the peaceful resolution of disputes,” yet the UK will retain imperial sovereignty over islands like Diego Garcia to serve as strategic military and intelligence bases for the US. Fourth, the US and UK “resolve to harness and protect [their] innovative edge in science and technology.” Seemingly innocuous statements about innovation serve an imperial purpose as well—with the 2023 Atlantic Declaration, the UK overtly declared that it would coordinate technology export controls with US rivals like China.138 Fifth, the US and UK “affirm our shared responsibility for maintaining our collective security and international stability and resilience against the full spectrum of modern threats, including cyber threats,” corroborating continued British surveillance cooperation with the US “underground empire” to help maintain US hegemony. Sixth, the US and UK “commit to continue building an inclusive, fair, climate-friendly, sustainable, rules-based global economy,” although the “fair” and “rules-based” global economy is again designed in a way to benefit the US, such as forcing dollar-pound convertibility and removing the “imperial preference” upon the British. When the rules-based global economy does not advantage the US, the US resorts to unfair practices like tariffs and subsidies.139 Prominent examples include Trump-era steel tariffs140 and US-produced electric-vehicle subsidies.141 Seventh, the US and UK claim to “act urgently and ambitiously to tackle the climate crisis, protect biodiversity, and sustain nature,” yet the UK helping the US maintain imperial structures exacerbates the climate crisis.142 Eighth, the US and UK seek to “collaborate to strengthen health systems and advance our health protections, and to assist others to do the same.” Such a statement promising to impose parochial Western medical practices upon others blatantly highlights the UK’s role in helping US cultural imperialism efforts.143 The New Atlantic Charter simply reinforces the British peripheral elite’s role in helping the US empire achieve economic, political, military, and sociocultural hegemony.

While the Anglo-American imperial role reversal escaped the Thucydides Trap, the UK has inevitably politically subjugated itself as part of the American empire. Yet the UK has established itself as part of the American imperial peripheral elite, allowing it to retain elements of its empire and offload the enormously expensive task of maintaining free trade and freedom of the seas to the US military. Although American economic and sociocultural influences pervade the UK, the British still retain some degree of economic and sociocultural independence. After all, the US and UK share many values, so a significant proportion of American strategic interests align with British interests. If the US and UK had fallen into the Thucydides Trap, the UK likely would have lost a disastrous war, after which the US would force the UK to give up its global empire as it did for Japan. For the UK, retaining some degree of global influence as an American peripheral elite subject was preferable to losing its elite status altogether.

Unless the US is truly exceptional like it claims to be, it will inevitably decline like every other empire before it, yet it need not collapse. Based on the UK’s example, the US could also avoid the Thucydides trap with another hegemon if the US becomes part of its imperial peripheral elite and the hegemon allows the US to retain some global influence. However, such a scenario may only be plausible if the US is willing to concede its dominance to that new hegemon. For example, the contentious US-China relationship presages the Thucydides Trap, so the peaceful US-UK role reversal seems to remain the exception rather than the rule. Yet if another superpower that shares American values supersedes American imperial power, the US ought to consider accepting its imperial domination to preserve some American global influence and avoid the Thucydides Trap. After all, the UK is doing quite well for itself under American hegemony, and the US could forge a similar relationship with a values-sharing future hegemon.

Conclusion

Over the past two centuries, the power dynamic between the US and UK has dramatically reversed. Initially, the UK incorporated formally independent early America into its “informal empire” through significant economic, political, military, and sociocultural dominance. After the Civil War, however, the US emerged as an industrial powerhouse and began developing its own formal empire free from British influence. By WWII and the original 1941 Atlantic Charter, the US started incorporating the UK into its “informal empire,” adopting and adapting many of the neocolonial tactics that the UK used to control pre-Civil War America. Once the imperial center, the UK soon became a key member of the American empire’s peripheral elite, heavily influenced and often directed by American economic, political, military, and sociocultural policies. Such an arrangement allowed the UK to maintain some global influence and avoid the Thucydides Trap. The new realities precipitated by the transatlantic power transfer continue to shape the contemporary world order in which the UK serves as America’s deputy. The US-UK relationship offers critical lessons for facilitating future global power transfers in which consenting superpowers can avoid war and forge a symbiotic yet imperial relationship.

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Featured/Headline Image Caption and Citation: Anglo-American Solidarity | Image sourced from Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

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Author

Ethan Chiu

Ethan Chiu is a sophomore at Yale University studying Global Affairs and History. He currently serves as the 2023-2024 YRIS International Liaison. He has previously worked at the American Enterprise Institute, Department of Defense, and American Red Cross, and is currently a research assistant at the DOD Information Strategy Research Center and National Defense University.

ethan.chiu@yale.edu