Just two months ago, the Special Relationship was written off by its critics as an anachronism, supposedly dying a slow but painful death, hand in hand with British decline. The Labour-dominated House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee effectively declared it to be dead, and recommended the phrase be dropped altogether by the British government. At the same time, the relationship between the White House and Downing Street was strained, with Gordon Brown and Barack Obama barely on speaking terms following the humiliating snub of the PM at the UN General Assembly meeting in New York last year. To cap it all, Hillary Clinton had just sided with Argentina in its call for negotiations over the sovereignty of the Falklands, a huge slap in the face for Britain. Although the alliance remained strong in terms of defence and intelligence cooperation, it had reached its lowest point politically in decades as Brown stepped down.
Just one week after David Cameron entered Downing Street, however, the Special Relationship looks back on track as a political force, and is undergoing a distinct revival. Within hours of taking office, the US president telephoned the new prime minister, not only to congratulate him, but also to give an extraordinarily warm endorsement of the Anglo-American alliance, stating the United States “has no closer friend and ally than the United Kingdom,” and inviting Cameron to visit the White House in July. By the end of last week, the new Foreign Secretary William Hague was already in Washington, meeting with his US counterpart, with the two getting along like a house on fire.
What explains this revival in the alliance on the US side? Perhaps most importantly, Obama and Brown loathed each other, and there was no chemistry at all between the two leaders. In contrast, Cameron and Obama have far more in common in terms of age, charisma, style and educational background. Further, Washington is keen to help shore up Britain’s commitment to the war in Afghanistan in the face of widespread public opposition in the UK, and is looking to London for support in handling the Iranian nuclear crisis as well. There is a growing realisation within the US administration that Britain is America’s only reliable large-scale ally in Afghanistan, with more than 10,000 combat troops on the ground, and a strong partnership with the new PM is essential.
The Special Relationship is definitely back in fashion after a hiatus since Blair left office in 2007. But this is also a honeymoon period on the world stage for the new Cameron-led coalition, with potential storm clouds ahead. Despite the strong start for Cameron on the US alliance front, there are several caveats to bear in mind (outlined below) as the Special Relationship advances in the coming months. It is important that the Cameron team understand they are dealing with an American administration with an extraordinary track record of undercutting key allies and engaging America’s enemies. While the early signs are positive, there is no guarantee that David Cameron will strike up a successful partnership with the US president, and he may need to look beyond 2012, and a possible changing of the guard in the White House, for the long-term preservation of the Special Relationship.
1. Barack Obama has little personal affinity for Britain, and is not instinctively pro-British in outlook by any measure, despite his warm words last week. It is worth recalling the appalling statement by a senior State Department official in March last year that “there’s nothing special about Britain. You’re just the same as the other 190 countries in the world. You shouldn’t expect special treatment,” a view that is still held by many officials in the US administration. As I noted before, the Special Relationship has been significantly downgraded under Obama’s presidency, which frequently displays a sneering disregard for America’s most important partner and ally.
2. The Obama administration strongly backs the Lisbon Treaty and the process of “ever-closer union” within the European Union. There are likely to be significant policy differences between the new British government and Washington over the handling of the Greek financial crisis, and the development of a European defence identity, and common foreign and security policy.
3. The Falklands issue could flare up again later this year, if Argentina’s president Cristina Kirchner presses for UN-brokered negotiations over the sovereignty of the islands. The Obama administration’s wrong-headed support for Argentina’s call for talks will lead to significant tensions with London.
4. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s anti-Americanism and his open disdain for the transatlantic alliance will not be helpful for the new British government as it forges a relationship with the United States. Clegg is a liability to Cameron on the foreign and defence policy front, and any sign that the coalition is divided over Afghanistan and Iran will undermine the effectiveness of the new government.
First appeared in the Telegraph