"Special" Relationships

By: /
July 11, 2012

As the world’s superpower, the United States has cultivated friendships and alliances across the globe, but has only seen fit to call a select few “special.” What exactly sets a “special relationship” (which should not be confused with the more formal Major non-NATO ally designation) apart from a run-of-the-mill alliance, however, isn’t always clear. Behind all the diplomatic niceties and photo-ops, the quality of these relationships can vary enormously depending on the issues involved and the historical context. Below, we examine the ties that bind the U.S. to those countries that it has declared to have “special” relationships with.

The United Kingdom

The U.S.-U.K. relationship is the special relationship. Winston Churchill first coined the term in his 1946 “Sinews of Peace” address when he called for “the continuance of the intimate relationship between our military advisers.” Indeed, the modern relationship forged during the Second World War was only strengthened by common fears of the Soviet threat. The 1962 Nassau Agreement between the two countries saw the U.S. trade nuclear missile technology for a lease on a submarine base in Britain.

Those military ties continue to bind post 9/11. Britain was the second-largest contributor of troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan and has been a top-ranking contributor to NATO.

However, some experts aren’t convinced that efforts by the U.K. have been entirely matched by those of the United States. U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to make his first key European address in Berlin reinforced fears that the U.K. is losing its place as the U.S.’s European connection. “Buy American” defence procurement policies in the United States have also been a source of conflict.


Haiti receives more economic aid from the U.S. than any other donor. It’s also a thruway for drugs flowing from South America to North America, and was once a regional counterbalance to communist Cuba. All these factors ensure a continuing American interest in Haitian issues.

Following the 2010 earthquake, the United States halted deportations of Haitian migrants and awarded temporary protected status to those living illegally in the United States. During this 18-month grant period, Haitians were allowed to live and work freely in the United States. The emergency and development aid transferred to Haiti after the disaster was the largest international humanitarian response to a natural disaster in U.S. history.

Saudi Arabia

As Saudi Arabia has the largest reserve of oil on Earth and provides the United States with one million barrels per day, it’s not surprising that the two countries maintain close ties.

Security is also a mutual concern. Saudi Arabia is considered the “cornerstone” of Washington’s regional security policy initiatives. Military aid and arms trade between the two countries is incredibly high. In 2011, they negotiated a $30-billion arms deal.

After 9/11, when 15 of the 19 hijackers were identified as Saudi nationals, tensions rose. However, it was quickly clarified that the Saudi government had no connection to al-Qaeda and Riyadh ceased to recognize the Taliban government in Afghanistan. The country is now considered one of the United States’ strongest partners against terrorism, being a victim of attacks itself.

Of course, differences over Israel, restrictions on freedom of speech and peaceful assembly, and discrimination against women and minorities remain.


Jordan’s solid relationship with the United States is based on the country’s commitment to moderate rule and regional peace. Jordan was the second Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel after Egypt, and receives the second-largest amount of per-capita aid from the U.S. in the Middle East after Israel. It was also the first Arab country to sign a free-trade agreement with the U.S., and has become an intelligence partner.


The United States and Australia share a number of common interests, particularly in Asia.

In late 2011, the Obama administration announced plans to deploy 2,500 Marines to northern Australia, much to the irritation of China. The move is just the latest collaboration on security issues. Australia is the only country to have fought alongside the U.S. in every major conflict since the First World War. The 1951 ANZUS security treaty ensures the two co-operate on defence matters, although it has only been invoked once, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Australia was the largest non-NATO contributor to the military effort in Afghanistan.

On the economic side of the ledger, the two signed a free-trade agreement in 2005, and both are active members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Council (APEC).


Liberia was founded by freed American slaves with the help of $100,000 given to them by the U.S. Congress. The capital, Monrovia, is named after former U.S. president James Monroe.

Relations quickly deteriorated, however, after the election of Charles Taylor and the outbreak of civil war in Liberia in the 1990s. Bilateral ties were severed, financial and military aid was cut, and travel bans on Liberian officials were imposed.

When Taylor resigned in 2003, the U.S. delegation at the UN proposed a Security Council resolution to authorize the deployment of a multinational stabilization force. The U.S. has since given over $1 billion in bilateral assistance. Liberia houses the second-largest USAID development program in Africa.


In 1991, the U.S.-led Operation Desert Storm liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. The two countries have had a strong military relationship ever since. In 2004, Kuwait provided “unique and unstinting support to the coalition for Operation Iraqi Freedom,” allowing the coalition to use the country as an access point to Iraq. Kuwait is also a strong partner in counterterrorism efforts.

Marshall Islands, Palau, and the Federated States of Micronesia

The Marshall Islands, Palau, and the Federated States of Micronesia have all signed compacts of free association with the United States. Under these compacts, the U.S. provides these states with economic aid and gives their citizens access to many American domestic programs. In return, the U.S. military is free to operate there. The U.S. considers this a fair trade in order to maintain “primacy in the Pacific.”


During a private meeting in 1962 with then-Israeli-Foreign-Minister Golda Meir, John F. Kennedy, the American president at the time, used the term “special relationship” to describe U.S.-Israeli ties. Fifteen years later, president Jimmy Carter publicly announced that “[The United States has] a special relationship with Israel. It’s absolutely crucial that no one in our country or around the world ever doubt that our number one commitment in the Middle East is to protect the right of Israel to exist, to exist permanently, and to exist in peace.”

Still, no formal military agreements exist. The specialness of the relationship only extends as far as informal arrangements, including military arms trade, American war reserves in Israel, military development co-operation on an anti-ballistic missile system, and joint missile defence. Oh, and Israel is the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign economic and military aid in the world, after Afghanistan.

More recently, the U.S. and Israel have found still more common ground on the nuclear ambitions of Iran. While neither country has admitted responsibility for the cyber-attack on Iran’s nuclear program, speculation is rampant. Certainly, Obama has expressed that Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon would be intolerable.


Turkey’s special relationship with the U.S. began with the 1947 Truman Doctrine, which saw the U.S. send Turkey considerable amounts of military and economic support in an effort to contain communism.

Post-Cold War relations, however, haven’t been quite as warm. Tensions arose when Turkey refused to let the U.S. use its territory to enter Iraq in 2003.

Things between the two countries are improving, though. Under Obama, the U.S.-Turkey relationship has been “prioritized,” and efforts have been made to boost trade and investment. In 2011, trade between the U.S. and Turkey reached record highs, jumping 35 per cent in one year. However, Obama’s statements about the factuality of the Armenian genocide and disagreements over sanctions on Iran remain points of difference.


The relationship between Egypt and the United States wasn’t always so close. Under former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s anti-Israel rhetoric and links to the Soviet Union kept the two countries at odds. But once Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, things warmed up significantly.

U.S. military aid to Egypt now totals $1.3 billion annually, and USAID has handed over $28 billion since 1975. The U.S. considers Egypt (and the Suez Canal) an essential connection to the Middle East.

During Egypt’s 2011 revolution, U.S. officials were initially hesitant to criticize then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak – a difficult case of democratic ideals versus strategic interests. But with the writing on the wall, Obama eventually called for Mubarak to step down.


The strong relations between Morocco and the United States goes way back – all the way back to the founding of the United States. Morocco was the first country to recognize the U.S. as an independent state in 1777. The Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the two countries was ratified in 1787, renegotiated in 1836, and is still in force today, making it the longest unbroken treaty in American history.

Relations between the two remain strong today – Morocco still receives a vast amount of economic and military support from the United States. Regarding the long-standing dispute over who should administer the Western Sahara – Morocco or the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic – the United States has come down in favour of the region’s autonomy within the Moroccan state.

South Korea

North Korea’s invasion of the South in 1950 motivated the United States, along with 16 other UN member states, to come to the aid of South Korea. Following the Korean War, the two countries signed the United States-Republic of Korea Mutual Defense Treaty.

To support this commitment, the U.S. maintains 28,500 troops in South Korea. Korea also aided the United States’ effort in Iraq. This security agreement has been labelled “the relationship forged in blood” and President Obama acknowledged South Korea as “one of America’s closest allies and greatest friends.”

On the economic side, the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement went into effect on March 15, 2012.

New Zealand

The Kiwis have fought alongside the U.S. during the Second World War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and in Afghanistan. New Zealand was also involved in post-war reconstruction in Iraq.

However, when New Zealand instituted a nuclear-free policy in the 1980s and banned American nuclear warships from using its ports, the relationship soured somewhat, with the U.S. calling New Zealand “a friend, but not an ally.”

More recently, former U.S. Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill stated, “Rather than trying to change each other’s minds on the nuclear issue, which is a bit of a relic, I think we should focus on things we can make work.”

Relations are once again strong, as demonstrated by New Zealand’s commitment to American initiatives abroad and aiding its ally when in need: The country pledged $2 million in aid for disaster relief after Hurricane Katrina.


That small dust-up in 1812 aside, things have been pretty cozy across the world’s longest undefended border.

Economically, the two countries are joined at the hip. Bilateral trade is now worth $1.4 billion a day thanks to NAFTA. The U.S. gets 20 per cent of its oil imports from Canada and is Canada’s largest foreign investor.

On security, the two are just as close. The 1940 Permanent Joint Board of Defense consults on mutual defence initiatives. NORAD, established in 1958, focuses on co-operative air and marine defence. And in the aftermath of 9/11, Canada invested significantly in anti-terrorist security initiatives alongside the U.S.

So it makes sense that Prime Minister Stephen Harper would congratulate a newly elected President Obama by saying, “The United States remains Canada’s most important ally, closest friend and largest trading partner and I look forward to working with President Obama and his administration as we build on this special relationship.”

Also in the series


The Climate Stalemate

Multilateral negotiations on climate change have failed. Is it time to call for an end to the charade?

Seven Myths About International Relations

From a united Europe to American exceptionalism.