The Suez Crisis and the Strained Anglo-American Relationship

  • 06 Pages
  • Published On: 21-11-2023

Why did the ‘Special relationship’ between Britain and the United States break down so badly during the Suez crisis?

Anglo-American special relationship in the post-war world has been one of the interesting and highly researched areas of studies, with the Suez crisis forming one of the events which saw breakdown in the relationship between the two allies. There are different theories as to the reasons why relations between the two allies broke down during the Suez crisis. An example of the differences between the Americans and the British over the Suez crisis can be seen in the proceedings in the UN Security Council over the issue. The UN Security Council was not able to take any initiative in the conflict in the Middle East because of the the French and the British vetoes. This led to the UNEF (United Nations Emergency Force) in 1956 initiated by the UN General Assembly as the UNSC was unable to take any action. This development within the UN was an indicator of the discord between America and Britain.

This essay argues that the breakdown in the relationship between the Americans and the British through the Suez crisis was resultant in part of their rivalry in the region, which predated the Suez crisis and was also linked to their respective desire to control oil resources in the Middle East, and also the different motivations for the Americans and the British for their involvement in the Middle East. This essay also argues that while there was breakdown in the relations between the two during the Suez crisis, such breakdown was not permanent in nature.


The Suez crisis was precipitated by the nationalisation of the Canal Company by Egypt’s Nasser, which act was seen to be a threat by both the Americans as well as the British; however, while the British decided to take military action against Nasser, the Americans believed that such action would be detrimental to western interests as this would lead to Soviet infiltration into the region. This forms the crux of the divergent approaches taken to the Suez crisis by the Americans and the British and forms part of the reason for the breakdown of their relations during the crisis. However, the breakdown of the relations was also due to the conflicting interests of Americans and the British with both wanting more control over the oil in the region. Moreover, the Americans saw the Middle East security relations more in the terms of containment of Soviet Union and the Cold War, whereas the British saw it in terms of oil and communication through the strategic Suez Canal, which put them at variance with each other during the Suez crisis.

It is argued that the British sought to ignore the American warnings regarding the use of force during the Suez crisis, which led to the souring of relations between the allies; this was prompted by the British insistence on continuing dominance in the Middle East in the post colonial era. It is argued that the British wanted to continue their post colonial dominance in the Middle East, which was one of the reasons why the British disregarded American advice on Suez crisis. Smith argues that the British found some support in their desire to continued dominance in the Middle East region in the Americans, who they believed would support them in the overthrowing of Nasser in Egypt.

In this regard, Smith also argues that one of the reasons why there was breakdown of relations between the two allies over Suez crisis was also due to their conflicting interests in the oil in the region, with both wanting control over these resources. One of the factors in this context is the lobbying by oil corporations in Britain that may have led to the Suez Canal war in 1956. Anglo-American rivalry in the Middle East in the context of oil dominance is not just seen in the way the rivalry was exposed in the Suez crisis; indeed, even before the Suez crisis the conflict between the two allies over oil dominance in the Middle East was reflected in their position on the Buraimi Oasis where the Americans sought to exercise control along with Saudi Arabia through the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO). Buraimi Oasis was situated in the strategic area which allows the occupier to have direct access to Muscat and Oman; for the British the Saudi-American venture in occupation of the oasis in August 1952 was also an assault on its remaining imperial powers in the region as the British were at that time in control of the defence policy of Muscat and Oman. Clearly, there was a rivalry between the Americans and the British over the oil resources in the Middle East with the British wanting continued dominance in the region despite the end of its imperial rule and the Americans too wanting control over the oil resources in the region. Against this background, illustrated by the Buraimi Oasis occupation by the Saudi-American forces, Suez crisis can also be seen as another flashpoint between the Americans and the British.

Thus, what can be seen is that while Britain wanted continuance of its dominance in the Middle East, also because of its desire to control oil resources in the region, Americans too wanted dominance and while the latter were prepared to tolerate some British dominance in the region they were not willing to support military action.

There were also differences in the American and British approaches to the defence networks in the Middle East region as reflected in their approaches to the Baghdad Pact. The Baghdad Pact was a regional defence organisation, which sought to link Britain to Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. While Britain wanted to focus on increasing cooperation with Iraq and Jordan, Americans wanted to include Egyptians through their conceptualisation of the ‘Northern Tier’ security concept. The difference between the British and the American approaches to this issue was concentrated in their respective approach to Egypt, with the former not concerned about any Egyptian resentment over their exclusion and the latter more concerned about keeping the Egyptians happy so as to ensure a possible Arab-Israel peace settlement. The divergent approaches to the Baghdad Pact with both countries first supporting it and the Americans refusing to join it at a later date is one of the factors that indicates the differences between the two over the Suez crisis. What can be noted is that Britain and Americans had different interests and motivations with regard to their involvement in the Middle East and their inability to reconcile these differences in their approaches and motivations was one of the reasons for the breakdown of their relations during the Suez crisis.

An important point to consider here is the possible conflict between Americans and the British over their approach to Colonel Nasser of Egypt with the former adopting a more moderate and tolerant stance to him as compared to the British. It is in this regard that there was a major discrepancy between the Americans and the British as the latter were prepared to eliminate Nasser even without the coordination with the Americans. Due to their differences, the Americans refused to join the Baghdad Pact, which they considered had been pushed hurriedly by the British. Dulles stated publicly that the Americans were opposed to supporting Britain in this Pact. When the crisis proceeded to a military option at the behest of the British, President Eisenhower refused to support it stating that American public opinion was opposed to the military solution to the Suez issue. Indeed, it has been noted that Eisenhower and Dulles hoped that even British public opinion would be opposed to such military options with time.

On the other hand, it may be argued that there were discrepancies in the public stance taken by Americans and what President Eisenhower and Secretary of State Dulles said in private to the British ministers, giving the latter to understand that there was American support for action in the Middle East. This view does not seem to be supported by the memoirs of President Eisenhower in which he notes that he was opposed to military occupation of the region as a response to Nasser’s nationalisation of the Canal company also because of the world opinion being opposed to such a military option.

It has been noted that President Eisenhower’s approach to Middle East in the post colonial era was different from that adopted by the British; the latter wanted continued dominance in the region based on the new defence networks involving Iraq and Jordan, which went beyond what the Americans were planning. The British move to bring Iraq and Jordan closer into these arrangements were bound to lead to resentment in Egypt and this was appreciated by Eisenhower. The Americans viewed the new defence networks from the perspective of containment, while the British viewed it from a perspective of renewed dominance in a post colonial world. An important difference between the Americans and the British on this issue was that while the British wished to go ahead with the Baghdad Pact without consideration of the Palestinian issue, the Americans believed that in the absence of the settlement of the Palestinian issue of settlement of refugees, the Baghdad Pact would only divide the Arab states making any peace in the region impossible.

The argument that Dulles supported the British military action in private while publicly opposing it, has not found favour with a section of British policy makers of the time, including Sir Roger Makins, British Ambassador to Washington, who wrote that Dulles did not agree with the British tactics in the Suez although he did agree with them in policy. It has also been noted by Makins that part of Dulles’ objection to British military tactics in the region was due to his opposition to colonial policies. This does not accord with the view that Dulles was privately in favour of British military action in Suez while he publicly opposed it. Indeed, it has been noted that both Eisenhower and Dulles were opposed to the action in Suez because they believed that such action would antagonise large sections of public in Asia and Africa. This is also supported by arguments put forth by Hahn.

Another angle to the disagreement between Americans and the British regarding the defence network is the different motivations of the two countries, which also belies the argument that there was a public-private discrepancy between the two regarding the Suez crisis. The Americans did not want to jeopardise the possibility of an Arab-Israeli settlement by generating resentment in the Egyptians with regard to its marginalisation in the defence network (by expanding it to Jordan and giving too much importance to Iraq), whereas the British were not too concerned about Egyptian resentment and were not focussed on Arab-Israeli settlement. Therefore, it is difficult to support a contention that the Americans in private were encouraging of a military option in the Suez crisis while they publicly opposed such action by the British. Indeed, it can be argued that any support to the military action against the Egypt was likely to jeopardise a possible solution to the Arab-Israel issue which was one of the important concerns for Americans in the Middle East.

It may be argued that the British and Americans were agreed on the action to be taken for overthrowing Nasser for the most part and the major disagreement was only on the military assault on Egypt in November 1956 by the British which was not supported by the Americans, but did not cause any lasting damage to the ‘special relationship’ between the two allies in the long run. There is some support for this viewpoint because regardless of their differences in the Suez crisis, the breakdown in the relations between America and Britain was not a permanent feature of their relations. Post the crisis, America and Britain continued to have “special relations” and the breakdown was temporary. However, it is established in literature that during the course of the Suez crisis, there was growth of anti-American sentiment in the British Cabinet and the Conservative Party. Therefore, while the Suez crisis does not seem to have damaged the Anglo-American relationship in the long run, it did bring forth the latent conflicting positions of the two countries on the Suez issue as they did not agree on the military option and had different motivations for their involvement in the region.

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To conclude, the two major reasons why the relations between Americans and the British broke down in the Suez crisis period are the conflicting interests of the two countries over the oil resources in the Middle East and the divergent positions taken by them on the issues of Nasser and the nationalisation of the Canal Company and the issue of defence network in the region. While America was motivated by containment of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, the British were more concerned with pursuing a continuation of their post colonial dominance in the Middle East. While the relations soured during the Suez crisis, the breakdown was temporary in nature and not something that was permanent.


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