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date: 24 November 2017

Summary and Keywords

Special relationships are durable and exclusive bilateral relations between autonomous polities that are based on mutual expectations of preferential treatment by its members and outsiders as well as regular entanglement of some (external) governance functions. The concept has become more prominent over the past three decades in part because of recent changes in international relations and foreign policy analysis theory (the constructivist and relational turn) and long-term shifts in the social structure of international relations, that is, decolonization, international criminal and humanitarian law, which have posed questions of solidarity, reconciliation, and responsibility of current and past special relationships.

The term special relationship has a long and diverse history. After World War II, it was used mainly to depict the Anglo-American security relationship as special. Today, well over 50 international relationships are deemed special. Despite this trend, no common theoretical framework has been developed to explain their emergence, variation, persistence and demise. Realism interprets special relationships as asymmetrical power relations, in which presupposed counterbalancing behavior does not occur because shared ideas or institutions mitigate autonomy concerns. Liberalism postulates that the special relatedness occurs when policy interdependence due to shared commercial interests or ideas allows deep cooperation and trust building. Social constructivism, in turn, assumes self-assertion but does not presuppose with or against whom the self, usually a polity, identifies itself. It follows that special relations may occur between dyads with positive identification (Germany-Israel after reconciliation) or negative identification, such as in the enduring rivalry between India and Pakistan.

As a relational term, special relationships do not sit easily with the first generation of foreign policy analysis focusing on decision making processes rather than the policies themselves. As a consequence, special relationships have been primarily conceptualized either as a tool of foreign policy or as one context factor influencing foreign policy choices. In relational theories, such as social constructivism, special relations, such as solidarity relations, are not causally independent from actors, as these relations also define the actors themselves.

Keywords: special relationship, relationalism, friendship, empire, alliances, enduring rivalries

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