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US-British 'Special Relationship' Endures

When Vice President Dick Cheney emerged from the White House for the 9/11 memorial services in Washington his wife was on one arm, and on the other was Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister of Britain. Thatcher's prominent place was a reminder that 67 British citizens died in the September 11th attacks. But, as VOA Correspondent Gary Thomas reports from London, it also underscored what Britain and the United States like to call the "special relationship" between the two nations.

In the context of the United States and the United Kingdom, the term "special relationship" is often used to describe the personal rapport between two leaders like President Bush and Tony Blair.

But the "special relationship" transcends the personalities of an American president and a British prime minister, even when the two leaders may not get along as well as President Bush and Mr. Blair do.

The director of the Institute for Transatlantic European and American Studies at Dundee University, Alan Dobson, says it encompasses a wide range of links.

"It is that interdependence, it is the de-facto existence of what we might call togetherness in the economic, intelligence, and cultural sphere, and political sphere, it seems, that gives this resilience to this relationship," he said.

Many analysts agree that the relationship is strongest in the security field, particularly in intelligence cooperation. An intelligence and security expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Bob Ayers, says that the attacks of September 11th, 2001 in New York and the terrorist bombings last year on the London transport system have led to greater intelligence cooperation between the two nations.

"The intelligence relationship has probably never been better [than] since 9/11 because there is a common enemy that all the international nation-states are trying to take and hopefully defeat," he said.

Ayers says each country brings special strengths to the "special relationship" in intelligence cooperation.

"The United States is very, very strong in what you would refer to as 'national technical collection' - in other words, satellites," he said. "And the U.S. has a full armada of satellites spinning around the Earth gathering information and taking pictures of every piece of terrain imaginable. The British do not have satellites. But the British have an extremely good human intelligence organizational structure."

There is criticism in some corners of Britain that the relationship is too unbalanced in America's favor, especially in foreign policy. Alan Dobson says that while that criticism may not mean much in American politics, it has repercussions in Britain.

"It is very much an asymmetrical relationship in that sense," he said. "I mean, it does not really matter in U.S. domestic politics, or, well, does not matter all that much what any American president does with his British counterpart. But it does and can count a whole lot for a British prime minister to be seen to be hanging on to America coattails or being part of American hegemony and being pulled into American power plays and policy decisions and so forth."

Prime Minister Blair's popularity has dropped dramatically because of what polls say is his close association with President Bush and unwavering support for the war in Iraq. A mini-revolt among some parliamentary members of his Labor Party forced him to announce that he would step down within one year.

Trans-Atlantic affairs analyst Dana Allin, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, says despite the domestic political damage the Blair government has suffered, Britain can act as a bridge between Europe and the United States, as it has in the current nuclear crisis over Iran.

"Because the Europeans have been working together and because, even despite the fractures over Iraq, the British and the French were very much on the same wavelength, they were able to present a united position to the United States, and that has arguably moderated the U.S. posture, or at least given it more options," she said.

Alan Dobson says Britain is now trying to find the money to fund two very expensive programs - buying a new generation of nuclear weapons delivery systems from the United States, and upgrading British armed forces so they can operate interdependently with U.S. military troops. What it decides to do, he says, could change at least one angle of the U.S.-British "special relationship."