Boots on the Ground: The Special Relationship

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Connor Cowman: Thank you for joining us! Where in the world did you study abroad and what were you doing there?

Thaddian Burson: For this last semester, I spent a term studying abroad in Oxford, England at the University of Oxford. I took two tutorials from the University of Oxford: one in European Union immigration asylum and human rights law and the other focused on Middle Eastern affairs.

CC: What was the most interesting or surprising thing you learned about the country while you were there?

TB: A very intriguing point I noticed as I was going to different events – specifically regarding foreign policy or foreign affairs – was how much the United States was discussed. Oftentimes, they weren’t really talking about the UK’s response to a certain crisis. It was often, “what is the United States going to do?” Although [the United States’s] power is declining relative to its position after the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. still maintains a very strong international role, and its power is still extremely significant.

CC: That’s very interesting, and it definitely speaks to the importance of American leadership abroad, as we here at AHS like to discuss as well. Even though the U.S. was the primary topic of conversation when it came to foreign affairs, did you detect any differences in attitude or policy with respect to foreign relations between the UK and the U.S.?

TB: To be honest, I neither picked up on a strong pro-American sentiment or a strong anti-American sentiment, with maybe the exception of a couple pro-Palestine protesters. It felt like everyone assumed that the United States and the UK had a strong alliance, and we were generally going to act in sync on a lot of issues. I really didn’t see a lot of variance there.

CC: What areas do you think the US and the UK are most effective and willing partners on?

TB: One of the first things that comes to mind is intelligence and defense. There’s a lot of cooperation there, especially on the intelligence side, that can be super important. We have a lot of common defense goals.

CC: In terms of the general society of the United Kingdom and the United States, what were the differences you found there? Is there something that you think that the United States could learn from the UK and vice versa?

TB: There were a lot of similarities between the United States and the UK. One of the things that I experienced – that maybe is not limited to the UK, but is certainly a difference between the UK and the US – is that in the UK, people in general seemed much more internationally-focused than in the United States. The average person in the UK I talked to knew more about American politics than the average American that I might talk to. They’re not just interested in America, but in Europe more broadly — or even the Middle East. There’s a much greater international focus.

In terms of differences on a contemporary topic, I was there studying foreign affairs and the Middle East, so there was lots of discussion about Palestine and Israel. It’s interesting that not too long ago we had a Congressional hearing in the U.S. where the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania testified for the House. And a significant number of House members in that Committee hearing, at that point in time, probably came down on the pro-Israel side. Whereas in England and at Oxford, what I found – or at least sensed – was that a lot of people would lean pro-Palestine. I’m not entirely sure of the sources of those differences, but it was definitely something I found at events I went to where we were discussing Israel and Palestine.    

CC: Often in Washington, the relationship between the U.S. and UK is talked about as being a ‘Special Relationship.’ What are your thoughts on that? Do you think that the so-called Special Relationship is important to preserve? 

TB: I think we do have a Special Relationship, when you think about our common intelligence and defense interests. There’s also NATO and the fact that the United Kingdom has incredibly modern military and technological capabilities. Educationally, they have one of the best systems in the world. I think it is a Special Relationship, and I think it is important to maintain that relationship if we want to work together for our joint interests in countering actors that would uproot or cause disorder in the international order: think Iran, or China, or Russia.

CC: One last question: what was your favorite thing, overall, about the UK?

TB: My favorite thing was the educational style of Oxford University. It differs from American universities, as their primary style of learning is tutorial-style. You sit down one-on-one – or, at maximum, three-on-one – with a professor, and you get to discuss the papers that you’ve written and the things that you’ve read. It motivates and allows for a much greater depth and flexibility of study than the normal American system. I absolutely loved that, especially with delving into Middle Eastern affairs.

CC: Thanks for joining us!

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