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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchIn Search of Ontological Security: Why the Anglo-American Special Relationship Endures

In Search of Ontological Security: Why the Anglo-American Special Relationship Endures

Authors: Sam Mohammadpour and Mohammad Reza Saeidabadi

Affiliation: University of Tehran, Iran

Organization/Publisher: Global Studies Quarterly

Date/Place: July 2023/UK

Number of Pages: 12


KeywordsOntological Security, Anglo-American Relationship, Identity, Existential Anxiety



This paper by Mohammad Reza Saeidabadi and Mohammadpour delves into the realm of ontological security studies within international relations. It specifically examines the connection between Britain’s ontological insecurity in the post-World War II global order and the development of the Anglo-American special relationship as a response to these anxieties. The proposed theoretical framework aims to explain the emergence and stability of the Anglo-American special relationship through the concepts of narrative identity and existential anxiety.

The authors began the article by stating that the term “special relationship,” coined by Winston Churchill, effectively encapsulates the comprehensive nature of the historical, cultural, economic, and traditional security aspects that define the evolving bond between the United Kingdom and the United States. Nonetheless, some political scholars still find the stability and evolution in their relationship remarkable, particularly in light of the substantial conflicts of interest between the United Kingdom and the United States since the birth of their special relationship.

The study is divided into a set of subheadings, starting with the identification of the term “special relationship” and a quick history of the partnership. The paper then delves into a suggested theoretical framework and demonstrates how it contains the special relationship. Building upon this foundation, we then discover the connection between Britain’s ontological insecurity in the new international order after World War II (WWII) and the emergence and stability of the AASR. Finally, the paper highlights the remarkable benefits presented by OS scholarship in analyzing the motives behind the UK`s mechanism of resilience in preserving the Anglo-American special relationship.

In the first subsection, “The Special Relationship: The Term and the History,” the authors try to establish a clear distinction between security communities or coalitions and the term “special relationship.” While the term has been applied to several relationships, such as Germany–France and United States–Canada, it is typically used to refer to the relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States.

Briefly, the concept of special relationships refers to a special connection between two states that distinguishes itself from other relationships, as members can only have a limited number of connections that qualify as special. It is worth noting that “negative relationships,” “enduring rivalries”, or “relationships of enmity” characterized by suspicion and fear are not typically discussed as special relationships, and another central element of special relationships should be their ability to withstand crises and endure changes in the interests of the participating members. This mechanism of resilience serves as a critical litmus test, highlighting the adaptation and survival of special relationships.

The shared narratives between the United Kingdom and the United States can be traced as far back as 200 years, and the authors argue that their bilateral relationship is special because the political, cultural, and economic roots of the American political system trace their origins back to the British Isles.

In the second part of the article, Literature and Theory, Reza Saeidabadi and Mohammadpour introduce readers to Hegel’s “master-slave dialectic,” regarding the relationship of the United States and the United Kingdom. Here he argues that ontological insecurity and a feeling of misrecognition can lead states to exhibit provocative or irrational behaviors in the international system. Ontological security (OS) generally refers to the study of the practices that social beings (individuals, groups, or states) employ to secure their sense of “self” over time. Applied to various groups and levels of analysis, OS spans several fields of study, including psychology, sociology, political science, and IR.

For example, the AASR in ontological security literature can be examined at both the individual level (e.g., in Churchill’s head) and the state unit level, considering various societies or states–society relations within the international system.

The authors stress that the suggested theoretical framework primarily focuses on state-level analysis. Their focus in this study can be traced back to Gidden’s primary interest in the modern state.

Reza Saeidabadi and Mohammadpour also highlight the shift from viewing the state as a service provider to recognizing it as an entity actively seeking identity and preservation in the global context, emphasizing the importance of international interactions.

They also present a comparative investigation of the Anglo-American Special Relationship (AASR) and the United Kingdom–Norway relationship, highlighting the significance of stable self-narratives in reducing instabilities and anxieties that shape behaviors and activities at the state level. The authors prioritize constructivist assumptions over realist and liberalist approaches, theorizing special connections as constructions of social identity shaped by domestic representations and international interaction patterns. 

The following section aims to explore the impact of WWII on the United Kingdom and the underlying factors contributing to its ontological insecurity after the war. Subsequently, addressing narrative identity and existential anxiety as two significant concepts in OS literature, the authors aim to explain why the emergence and stability of the AASR came to be perceived as a source of British OS in the post-war era.

In “Searching OS: The Emergence and Stability of the AASR,” the authors summarize the United Kingdom’s security position after World War II with the statement by Dean Acheson: ‘Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role.’ The country grappled with the aftermath of decolonization and strove to redefine its position and purpose in the world in the absence of its former imperial status. The loss of its empire disrupted the established narrative of British power and identity. This led to a state of ontological insecurity, diminishing the once-largest empire in human history to a medium-sized country in Western Europe in terms of both power and influence.

According to the authors, Britain’s response to the new situation has been the subject of academic debate. For example, the decision to join the European Economic Community signified a deliberate break from its imperial history. Conversely, others propose that the adoption of a new foreign policy was influenced by the subordinate relationship with the United States, considering its historical empire within the framework of the emerging informal Anglo-American empire. In connection with this, the promotion of the “special” nature of the AASR resulted from decolonization, aiming to allow Britain to pursue its interests without the military and economic burden of upholding an empire.

In the following part of the article, “Old Identity, New Methods: Britain’s Response to the New Global Order,” the authors argue that we must acknowledge that the evolution of British identity is intricately intertwined with its imperial history, spanning centuries of British global dominance. Even scholars who approach the term ‘Imperial Britain’ with caution, such as Stephen Howe, recognize the importance of understanding the influence of empire on British identity.

Although Britain’s identity has been historically linked to its colonial and imperial policies, the authors argue that the change in British strategies and policies after the colonial imperial era was aimed at enhancing cooperation and relations between the two countries. For many Americans, the idea of assisting Britain in retaining its colonial possessions would be unacceptable. For them, the natural outcome of the Anglo-American partnership was Britain’s willingness to make radical changes in its colonial policies.

Britain’s agreement to this was closely tied to its active pursuit of strengthening its close relationship with the United States. Britain made efforts and sacrifices to avoid issues that could not be controlled with its ally across the Atlantic, which provided a certain degree of intellectual and institutional security against external pressures.

In the sub-section “Identity and Shared Narratives: The Emergence of the AASR,” the author discuss how the emergence of the British Atlantic Special Relationship (AASR) was grounded in the shared narratives between Britain and the United States as an attempt to address Britain’s ontological security needs. The Anglo-Saxon identity, emphasizing the distinctiveness and unity of White, Protestant, and civilized English-speaking individuals, was considered the main pillar of these shared stories. For this reason, Britain sought to forge a partnership with the United States, a major global power that significantly shared these narratives. To delve deeper, a kind of “alternative identity” can be observed in Britain’s commitment to the British Atlantic Special Relationship; a form of “living through the other” to generate the desired ontological security for the Kingdom.

In discussing the shared historical narrative between the United States and Britain, it is crucial to note that what made the British Atlantic special relationship possible was not merely an unexpected blend of language or finances. Primarily, it was the idea that the United Kingdom and the United States share a common Anglo-Saxon heritage. Often referred to as the ‘racial alliance,’ this concept underscores the notion that the British Atlantic special relationship is rooted in a shared ethnic legacy.

From the perspective of ontological security, the British Atlantic special relationship served to secure Britain’s sense of self-identity and ensure the continuity of their influence post-World War II. Therefore, in addressing their ontological security needs, the special relationship played a vital role in navigating the challenges and uncertainties of the post-war era

The next part of the article explores existential anxiety within the context of the AASR post-WWII. The authors argue that Britain’s anxieties served as a “mechanism of resilience,” fostering the AASR despite sacrificing some national interests. The continuity of the AASR provided a familiar narrative, anchoring British self-identity amidst uncertainty. This relationship helped Britain maintain a semblance of global leadership, and gave meaning to its actions in the international arena. Overall, the authors suggest that anxiety played a significant role in Britain’s efforts to sustain the AASR.

In the final part of the article, the authors aim to clarify the advantages of ontological security as an alternative theoretical framework to the traditional approach. The first benefit lies in that this theoretical framework provides a comprehensive explanation for the emergence of the partnership between the two states and its stability despite conflicting interests with the United States. Therefore, the traditional materialistic perspective cannot explain the special relationship. 

The second benefit of ontological security as a framework lies in the asymmetrical power in the Atlantic special relationship. The significant difference in relative power among alliance members may lead to the division of the alliance. However, the history of the Atlantic special relationship seemingly does not confirm this opinion in some crucial aspects. In this context, assumptions of ontological security shed new light on power relations in this partnership, where members may vary in their commitment to the partnership in order to maintain their ontological security.

In the conclusion, Reza Saeidabadi and Mohammadpour confirm once more that the main argument of this paper is that the special relationship, as a significant source of Ontological Security (OS), assists in preserving the British sense of self-identity after WWII by providing comforting narratives in times of uncertainty. While Britain’s behavior in the AASR is seemingly irrational by sacrificing national interests for the United States, the authors argue that it should be seen as a response to existential anxieties in the postwar era. The paper concludes that the restoration of shared narratives and the creation of a special relationship with a state that shares common ideational factors can reinstate an actor’s OS (ontological security) in times of existential anxiety.


By: Chourouk Mestour, Ph.D. candidate in International Relations




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