May 20, 2011 | WebMemo on United Kingdom
During his state visit to the United Kingdom on May 24–26, President Barack Obama should reaffirm the vital importance of the Special Relationship. This affirmation should go beyond words and address the tensions in the Anglo–American alliance that have built up during the President’s first two years in office.
These tensions are the result of the fact that the United States has undervalued its key allies—including Britain—while Britain has done too little to ensure that it remains a sovereign and capable partner within NATO and with the U.S.
The Special Relationship
The Special Relationship rests on three pillars:
Regrettably, all three pillars are under strain, and in some cases, the strain is serious. The recent U.S. emphasis on “soft power” and multilateralism betokens a retreat from leadership, as do ongoing reductions in British defense spending. Both countries have long since left the path of classical liberalism. Finally, the U.S. is increasingly prioritizing other parts of the world—particularly the Middle and Far East—over Europe, while Britain’s sovereignty and ability to play an independent and assertive role in the world is being eaten away by the European Union.
The Foreign Policy of the Obama Administration
The foreign policy of the Obama Administration feeds into and exemplifies these disheartening trends. It does not regard Europe as the most important region in the world or Britain, the leading power in Europe, as America’s most important ally. It has emphasized its desire to win better relations with undemocratic regimes and has therefore played down America’s traditional alliance relationships. Finally, by “leading from behind,” it has further devalued all of its alliance relationships, especially its relationship with the U.K.
There have been some encouraging developments in Anglo–American relations over the past two years. First, the U.S. has finally ratified the U.S.–U.K. Defense Trade Cooperation Treaty. Second, after much hesitation and many mixed messages, the U.S. has committed to remaining in Afghanistan beyond the Administration’s nominal deadline of July 2011. Given Britain’s continued commitment to the fight, it would have been disastrous for Anglo–American relations—not to mention for the region and the cause of defeating the Taliban and al-Qaeda—if the U.S. had begun a precipitate retreat. Third, in the context of the President’s visit, the White House now speaks glowingly about the “Special Relationship.” What has not happened is any sustained effort to make the realities of U.S. policy match this rhetoric.
What the U.S. and Britain Should Do
The state of Anglo–American relations is not good. The goal of both President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron should be to improve them. Repairing the Special Relationship will require recognizing the sources of Anglo–American friction and taking serious steps to address them. Making high-flown declarations of common purpose will not suffice.
The single greatest danger to the Special Relationship is any belief that neither nation needs to lead in the world and, thus, that neither needs allies. The first necessity for both leaders is therefore to commit their nations to a policy of international leadership conducted together in concert with their allies.
The second most important danger is the material risk posed by the government debt burdens in both Britain and the U.S. Neither the U.S. nor Britain can play a leading international role if they are bankrupt or if they pay their bills by cutting their armed forces. Both nations need to recognize that their alliance relationships, economic future, and roles in the world rest on their financial and military strength. In both countries, entitlement spending is threatening this strength. They need to address and control this threat in a way that allows their economies to grow and thus fund affordable and reliable military forces.
Third, and finally, both leaders should address specific causes of Anglo–American friction. The alternative is to continue the current drift to the detriment of the Special Relationship and British and American values and interests.
Keeping the Relationship Special
Just because the Special Relationship is deep and important does not mean it is immune from disruption. If the alliance between Britain and the U.S. is to remain special, its partners must treat each other specially and better than they do other states. The President and the Prime Minister have a vital obligation to pursue policies that clearly demonstrate the value that they place on the Special Relationship.
Ted R. Bromund, Ph.D., is Margaret Thatcher Senior Research Fellow in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation.
For further exploration and analysis of the themes in this WebMemo, see Ted R. Bromund, “Preserving the Special Relationship: A Conservative Agenda for President Obama’s State Visit to Great Britain,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2558, May 19, 2011, at http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2011/05/preserving-special-relationship-conservative-agenda-for-president-obamas-state-visit-great-britain.