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Decolonising the special relationship: Diego Garcia, the Chagossians, and Anglo-American relations

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 December 2012


In this article, I challenge the prevailing concept of the UK-US ‘special relationship’ with a view to improving the concept as an analytic tool for researchers. As it stands, the special relationship draws attention to an uncommonly close bond between two state actors in the post-Second World War period, especially in terms of military cooperation. This conception imposes analytic costs – namely, an elision of imperialism as a feature of Anglo-American relations and a concomitant marginalisation of subaltern social actors. In response, I propose a reconception that posits the subaltern – third parties – as integral to the relationship, thus better capturing the empirical reality of Anglo-American relations past and present. Theoretically, I draw upon postcolonial International Relations scholarship and recent theories of friendship in international politics. Empirically, I present a case study of the US military base on Diego Garcia in the Chagos Islands.

Copyright © British International Studies Association 2012 

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1 For use in this context, the term ‘subaltern’ (literally, ‘subordinate’ or ‘secondary’) originated in the work of Antonio Gramsci who used it to refer to ‘dominated and exploited groups’. It was developed to apply to postcolonial social enquiry from the 1980s onwards by the Subaltern Studies collective. See Young, Robert C. J., White Mythologies (2nd edn, London: Routledge, 2004), p. 202Google Scholar.

2 Barkawi, Tarak and Laffey, Mark, ‘The Postcolonial Moment in Security Studies’, Review of International Studies, 32:2 (2006), p. 331CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Here, Barkawi and Laffey make clear that the idea of Europe – both what it is and where it is – has altered over time and that, today, Europe is synonymous with ‘the West’, which is ‘centred on the Anglophone US’.

3 Gruffydd Jones, Branwen, ‘Introduction: International Relations, Eurocentrism, and Imperialism’, in Gruffydd Jones, (ed.), Decolonizing International Relations (Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), p. 9Google Scholar.

4 Dumbrell, John, A Special Relationship: Anglo-American Relations from the Cold War to Iraq (2nd edn, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), p. 11CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Dumbrell, A Special Relationship, p. 11.

6 Ibid., p. 4.

7 According to K. M. Fierke, ‘a label may be constitutive in that it reproduces or creates entities or identities within a particular world’. See Fierke, K. M., ‘Breaking the Silence: Language and Method in International Relations’, in Debrix, François (ed.), Language, Agency, and Politics in a Constructed World (Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 2003), p. 82Google Scholar.

8 See, for example, Hodder-Williams, Richard, ‘Reforging the “special relationship”: Blair, Clinton and Foreign Policy’, in Little, Richard and Wickham-James, Mark (eds), New Labour's Foreign Policy: A New Moral Crusade? (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000)Google Scholar.

9 Ovendale, Ritchie, Anglo-American Relations in the Twentieth Century (London: St. Martin's Press, 1998), pp. 27–8, 36–8Google Scholar.

10 Wallace, William and Phillips, Christopher, ‘Reassessing the Special Relationship’, International Affairs, 85:2 (2009), pp. 264–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Adams, Iestyn, Brothers Across the Ocean: British Foreign Policy and the Origins of the Anglo-American ‘Special Relationship’ 1900–1905 (London: Tauris Academic Studies, 2005), pp. 228–9, emphasis addedGoogle Scholar.

12 Campbell, Duncan Andrew, Unlikely Allies: Britain, America, and the Victorian Origins of the Special Relationship (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2007), p. 2Google Scholar.

13 Ovendale, Anglo-American Relations, p. 45.

14 Wallace and Phillips, ‘Reassessing the Special Relationship’, p. 273.

15 Aldrich, Richard J., ‘British Intelligence and the Anglo-American “Special Relationship” during the Cold War’, Review of International Studies, 24:3 (1998), pp. 331–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Aldrich argues that intelligence was ‘subordinate to themes such as atomic cooperation’, p. 350, emphasis in original.

16 Dumbrell, A Special Relationship, pp. 171–2.

17 Dumbrell, , ‘The US-UK Special Relationship: Taking the 21st-Century Temperature’, The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 11:1 (2009), p. 65CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 Goodman, Michael S., ‘With a Little Help from my Friends: The Anglo-American Atomic Intelligence Partnership, 1945–1958’, Diplomacy and Statecraft, 18:1 (2007), pp. 155–83CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 Goodman, , Spying on the Nuclear Bear: Anglo-American Intelligence and the Soviet Bomb (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), p. 131Google Scholar.

20 Wallace and Phillips, ‘Reassessing the Special Relationship’, p. 270.

21 Dumbrell, ‘The US-UK Special Relationship: Taking the 21st-Century Temperature’, p. 65.

22 Dumbrell, A Special Relationship, p. 187, emphasis added.

23 Wallace and Phillips, ‘Reassessing the Special Relationship’, pp. 267–9.

24 Dumbrell, , ‘The US-UK “Special Relationship” in a World Twice Transformed’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 17:3 (2004), p. 444CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 Dumbrell, ‘The US-UK “Special Relationship” in a World Twice Transformed’, pp. 442–5.

26 See, for example, Parmar, Inderjeet, ‘“I'm Proud of the British Empire”: Why Tony Blair Backs George W. Bush’, The Political Quarterly, 76:2 (2005), pp. 218–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 Mead, Walter Russell, God & Gold: British, America, and the Making of the Modern World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007)Google Scholar.

28 Curtis, Mark, Web of Deceit: Britain's Real Role in the World (London: Vintage, 2003), p. 416Google Scholar.

29 The Sunday Times (21 September 1975); The Sunday Times (25 January 1976); The Guardian (10 September 1975). See also Vine, David, Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia (Princeton: Princeton University Press), pp. 122–5Google Scholar.

30 John Madeley, ‘Diego Garcia: A Contrast to the Falklands’, Minority Rights Group, 54 (London: Minority Rights Group, 1982). Also in 1982, the Chagossians were the subject of a World in Action documentary on UK television.

31 Fuller, Jack, ‘Dateline Diego Garcia: Paved-Over Paradise’, Foreign Policy, 28:1 (1977), p. 183Google Scholar.

32 See, for example, Vale, Peter C. J. and Spicer, Michael, ‘Offshore Politics and the Security of Southern Africa’, in Dowdy, William L. and Trodd, Russell B. (eds), The Indian Ocean: Perspectives on a Strategic Arena (Durham: Duke University Press, 1985), pp. 288–9Google Scholar.

33 Khan, Jooneen, ‘The Militarization of an Indian Ocean Island’, in Cohen, Robin (ed.), African Islands and Enclaves (London: Sage, 1983), pp. 165–91Google Scholar; Pattabhi Rama Rao, Parakala, Diego Garcia: Towards a Zone of Peace (New Delhi: Sterling, 1985), p. vGoogle Scholar.

34 See, for example, Seth, S. P., ‘The Indian Ocean and Indo-American Relations’, Asian Survey, 15:8 (1975), pp. 645–55CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Jawatkar, K. S., Diego Garcia in International Diplomacy (London: Sangam Books, 1983), pp. 1324Google Scholar; Larus, Joel, ‘Diego Garcia: The Military and Legal Limitations of America's Pivotal Base in the Indian Ocean’, in Dowdy, and Trodd, (eds), The Indian Ocean, pp. 443–4Google Scholar; Bux Rais, Rasul, The Indian Ocean and the Superpowers: Economic, Political and Strategic Perspectives (London: Croom Helm, 1986), p. 81Google Scholar.

35 On Diego Garcia in security studies from the 1990s onwards, see Bhatt, Anita, The Strategic Role of [the] Indian Ocean in World Politics (Delhi: Ajanta Publications, 1992)Google Scholar; Chaturvedi, Sanjay, ‘Common Security? Geopolitics, Development, South Asia and the Indian Ocean’, Third World Quarterly, 19:4 (1998), p. 716CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kaplan, Robert D., ‘Center Stage for the Twenty-first Century: Power Plays in the Indian Ocean’, Foreign Affairs, 88:2 (2009), p. 25Google Scholar; Hastings, Justin V., ‘The Fractured Geopolitics of the United States in the Indian Ocean Region’, Journal of the Indian Ocean Region, 7:2 (2011), pp. 183–99CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Erickson, Andrew S., Walter, Ladwig C. III, and Mikolay, Justin D., ‘Diego Garcia and the United States' Emerging Indian Ocean Strategy’, Asian Security, 6:3 (2010), pp. 214–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On allegations of torture and rendition, see Curtis, , Unpeople: Britain's Secret Human Rights Abuses (London: Vintage, 2004), pp. 20, 30Google Scholar; Sidaway, James D., ‘“One Island, One Team, One Mission”: Geopolitics, Sovereignty, “Race” and Rendition’, Geopolitics, 15:4 (2010), pp. 667–83CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36 Jeffery, , ‘Historical Narrative and Legal Evidence’, PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropological Review, 29:2 (2008), p. 234Google Scholar.

37 As well as a slew of journal articles, see the following full-length books: Vine, Island of Shame; Jeffery, Laura, Forced Displacement and Onward Migration: Chagos Islanders in Mauritius and the UK (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sand, Peter H., United States and Britain in Diego Garcia: The Future of a Controversial Base (New York: Palgrave Macmillan)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Evers, Sandra J. T. M and Kooy, Marry (eds), Eviction from the Chagos Islands: Displacement and Struggle for Identity Against Two World Powers (Leiden: Brill, 2011)Google Scholar.

38 Curtis makes the exact same point in a 2004 article. See Curtis, , ‘Britain's Real Foreign Policy and the Failure of British Academia’, International Relations, 18:3 (2004), pp. 283–4CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 Dumbrell, A Special Relationship, pp. 89–0.

40 Wallace and Phillips, ‘Reassessing the Special Relationship’, p. 272.

41 Vine, , ‘War and Forced Migration in the Indian Ocean: The US Military Base at Diego Garcia’, International Migration, 42:3 (2004), p. 112CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

42 Curtis, ‘Britain's Real Foreign Policy’. See also Curtis, , The Great Deception: Anglo-American Power and World Order (London: Pluto Press, 1998)Google Scholar; Curtis, Web of Deceit; Curtis, Unpeople.

43 It emphatically is not the purpose of this article to denigrate existing scholarship on the special relationship or individual scholars. There are numerous impressive – and very important – scholarly accounts of Anglo-American relations that adopt the terminology of the special relationship, including many cited in this article.

44 See Laffey, Mark and Weldes, Jutta, ‘Decolonizing the Cuban Missile Crisis’, International Studies Quarterly, 52:2 (2008), pp. 555–77CrossRefGoogle Scholar. ‘IR's too frequent failure to take the subaltern seriously produces blind spots in analysis of world politics. Theory-building and problem-solving are blinkered’, p. 572.

45 See Laffey, and Weldes, , ‘Representing the International: Sovereignty after Modernity?’, in Passavant, Paul and Dean, Jodi (eds), The Empire's New Clothes: Reading Hardt and Negri (New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 125Google Scholar; Halperin, Sandra, ‘International Relations Theory and the Hegemony of Western Conceptions of Modernity’, in Jones, Gruffydd (ed.), Decolonizing International Relations, p. 60Google Scholar.

46 Shaw, Karena, ‘Indigeneity and the International’, Millennium – Journal of International Studies, 31:55 (2002), 68CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

47 Waltz, Kenneth N., Theory of International Politics (Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1979)Google Scholar.

48 Anghie, Antony, Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

49 Darby, Phillip, Postcolonizing the International: Working to Change the Way We Are (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2006), p. 16Google Scholar.

50 Masco, Joseph P., ‘States of Insecurity: Plutonium and Post-Cold War Anxiety in New Mexico, 1992–96’, in Weldes, , Laffey, , Gusterson, Hugh, and Duvall, Raymond (eds), Cultures of Insecurity: States, Communities and the Production of Danger (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), pp. 225–6Google Scholar.

51 Some social theorists are much more demanding in their prescriptions on how to decolonise Western modernity and epistemology writ large. See, for example, Mignolo, Walter and Escobar, Arturo (eds), Globalization and the Decolonial Option (Routledge, 2009)Google Scholar; and Mignolo, , The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options (Latin America Otherwise) (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

52 Berenskoetter, Felix, ‘Friends, There Are No Friends? An Intimate Reframing of the International’, Millennium – Journal of International Studies, 35:3 (2007), pp. 647–76CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a review essay of other IR work on friendship, see Devere, Heather and Smith, Graham M., ‘Friendship and Politics’, Political Studies Review, 8:3 (2010), pp. 341–56CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Oelsner, Andrea and Vion, Antoine, ‘Special Issue: Friendship in International Relations’, International Politics, 48:1 (2011), pp. 19CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

53 Berenskoetter, ‘Friends,’ p. 671.

54 Ibid., p. 670.

55 Ibid.

56 Ibid., pp. 671–3.

57 Ibid., p. 673.

58 The concept of externalities is commonly deployed in the study of economics.

59 Said, Edward, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978)Google Scholar. For an extended discussion of ‘otherness’ in IR, see Odysseos, Louiza, The Subject of Coexistence: Otherness in International Relations (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007)Google Scholar.

60 Mead, God & Gold, pp. 46–7.

61 Kagan, Robert, Dangerous Nation: America and the World 1600–1898 (London: Atlantic Books, 2006), pp. 1213Google Scholar.

62 Ibid., p. 12.

63 Ibid., pp. 71–81.

64 Ibid., p. 303.

65 For discussions of the complexity of American empire, see Sparrow, Bartholomew H., The Insular Cases and the Emergence of American Empire (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006)Google Scholar; and Maier, Charles S., Among Empires: American Ascendancy and its Predecessors (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

66 Dunning, William Archibald, The British Empire and the United States (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1914), p. 323Google Scholar.

67 Bradford Perkins is generally credited as coining this term. See Perkins, , The Great Rapprochement: England and the United States, 1895–1914 (New York: Atheneum, 1968)Google Scholar.

68 Ovendale, Anglo-American Relations, pp. 4–9.

69 Ibid., pp. 9–10.

70 Campbell, Unlikely Allies, pp. 171–99.

71 Brendon, Piers, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781–1997 (London: Vintage, 2007), p. 212Google Scholar. Also Bell, The Idea of Greater Britain, pp. 254–9.

72 Quoted in McDonald, James Gordon, Rhodes: A Life (3rd edn, London: Philip Allan and Co., 1929), p. 285Google Scholar.

73 Churchill, The Sinews of Peace address (5 March 1946), emphasis added.

74 Gruffydd Jones, ‘Introduction’, p. 3. Sankaran Krishna has derided this same dynamic within IR as ‘willful amnesia’. See Krishna, , ‘Race, Amnesia, and the Education of International Relations’, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, 26:4 (2001), pp. 401–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

75 Robbie Shilliam makes a similar point about the conception of an Atlantic regional system in IR. Shilliam argues that Western conceptions of an Atlantic community rest upon a forgotten history of imperialism and particularly the slave trade, much as I argue that the narrative of a special relationship rests upon an unmentioned imperial past. See Shilliam, , ‘The Atlantic as a Vector of Uneven and Combined Development’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 22:1 (2009), pp. 6988CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

76 Harold Macmillan propounded that the British and Americans shared a relationship analogous to that of the Greeks and Romans of antiquity; it was the UK's charge to ‘[guide] America with the sophisticated counsel of a more mature civilisation’. Quoted in Brendon, The Decline and Fall, pp. 542–3.

77 Rais, The Indian Ocean, pp. 30–2. On the impact that the loss of India had on Britain's Indian Ocean presence, see Darby, , British Defence Policy East of Suez 1947–1968 (London: Oxford University Press, 1973)Google Scholar.

78 Vine, Island of Shame, pp. 68–9.

79 Ibid., pp. 70–1.

80 Anthony Greenwood quoted in The Sunday Times (21 September 1975).

81 Vine, Island of Shame, pp. 86–8.

82 See, especially, Paragraphs 5 and 6 of ‘UN Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples’ (1960). See also ‘UN General Assembly Resolution 2066, “Question of Mauritius”’ (1965).

83 Rais, The Indian Ocean, pp. 80–6.

84 Vine, Island of Shame, pp. 8–10.

85 Gifford, ‘The Chagos Islands’, p. 5.

86 Richard Edis, a former Commissioner of BIOT, writes that ‘it is interesting to note that other names for the new territory were considered but discarded, including Limuria’. See Edis, , Peak of Limuria: The Story of Diego Garcia and the Chagos Archipelago (2nd edn, London: Chagos Conservation Trust, 2004), p. 80Google Scholar.

87 Vine, Island of Shame, pp. 78–9.

88 Sir Paul Gore-Booth quoted in Vine, Island of Shame, p. 91, emphasis in original.

89 Vine, Island of Shame, p. 90.

90 Ibid., p. 92.

91 Ibid., pp. 112–15.

92 Allen, Stephen, ‘Looking Beyond the Bancoult Cases: International Law and the Prospect of Resettling the Chagos Islands’, Human Rights Law Review, 7:3 (2007), p. 480CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Also Snoxell, David, ‘Anglo/American Complicity in the Removal of the Inhabitants of the Chagos Islands, 1964–73’, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 37:1 (2009), pp. 130–1CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

93 Pilger, John, Freedom Next Time (London: Bantam Press, 2006), p. 75Google Scholar.

94 Curtis, Unpeople, p. 31.

95 Anthony Aust quoted in Vine, Island of Shame, p. 92, emphasis added.

96 Gifford, ‘The Chagos Islands’, pp. 5–6.

97 Vine, Island of Shame, p. 6, emphasis in original.

98 Vine, and Jeffery, , ‘Give us Back Diego Garcia’, Lutz, Catherine (ed.), The Bases of Empire: The Global Struggle Against U.S. Military Posts (New York: New York University Press), pp. 191200Google Scholar.

99 See, for example, Wallace and Phillips, ‘Reassessing the Special Relationship’, p. 272.

100 Vine, ‘War and Forced Migration’, p. 133.

101 Quoted in The Guardian (1 September 2000).

102 Quoted in The Telegraph (4 November 2000), available at: {} accessed 27 June 2012.

103 See in particular Articles 9(1) and 9(2) of the British Indian Ocean Territory (Constitution) Order 2004. In explaining his action to exile the islanders via Royal Prerogative, then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw is reported to have admitted to ‘sacrificing legitimacy for speed’. See Le Mauricien (20 January 2012), {} accessed 27 June 2012.

104 Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, Seventh Report (18 June 2008), para. 45.

105 The Guardian (2 December 2010), {} accessed 27 June 2012.

106 The Times (1 November 2008).

107 On the UK government's rationale for opposing resettlement, see Allen, Stephen, ‘International Law and the Resettlement of the (Outer) Chagos Islands’, Human Rights Law Review, 8:4 (2008), pp. 683702CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

108 Vine, ‘War and Forced Migration’, p. 129.

109 Gifford, ‘The Chagos Islands’, p. 5.

110 The Guardian (21 February 2008), {} accessed 27 July 2012. See also Adam Zagorin, ‘Source: US Used UK Isle for Interrogations’, Time (31 July 2008), {,8816,1828469,00.html} accessed 27 July 2012.

111 Sand, Peter H., ‘Diego Garcia: British-American Legal Black Hole in the Indian Ocean?’, Journal of Environmental Law, 21:1 (2009), pp. 113–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See Sand, United States and Britain for an expanded analysis.

112 Officials have privately expressed their lack of regret for the exile of the Chagossians, seeing their treatment as justified in the context of security concerns. See The Guardian (2 December 2010), {} accessed 27 June 2012.

113 Quoted in The Guardian (22 October 2008), {} accessed 27 June 2012.

114 Vine, Island of Shame; Jeffery, Chagos Islanders; Evers and Kooy (eds), Eviction from the Chagos Islands.

115 Berenskoetter, ‘Friends’, p. 648.

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