Less than an hour after David Cameron became British prime minister last week, he got a congratulatory phone call from President Obama. That was merely a courtesy. What the president said was not. “As I told the prime minister,” the president said in a statement later, “the United States has no closer friend and ally than the United Kingdom, and I reiterated my deep and personal commitment to the special relationship between our two countries, a bond that has endured for generations and across party lines.”
Given Obama’s role in tearing down the once formidable partnership between the United States and the United Kingdom, his words may represent a significant shift in his foreign policy. Or they could be diplomatic happy talk, signifying little. We’ll know soon enough, for issues that have divided the United States and Britain are bound to crop up even before Cameron visits Washington in July.
The near-extinction of the “special relationship,” as Winston Churchill dubbed the American-British bond in 1946, has occurred over the past half-decade without noticeable angst either here or in Britain. On the contrary, political leaders in both countries have foolishly abetted its decline.
The gratuitous words of a State Department official in May 2009 were particularly harmful. “There’s nothing special about Britain,” the official said. “You’re just the same as the other 190 countries in the world. You shouldn’t expect special treatment.” This came after Prime Minister Gordon Brown had been treated shabbily at the White House.
A year later, a British parliamentary committee said the phrase “special relationship” should be jettisoned. Its use “is potentially misleading and we recommend that its use be avoided. . . . [It may] raise unrealistic expectations about the benefits the relationship can deliver to the U.K.”
Obama has done his part to downgrade ties to Britain. He avoided, until last week, mentioning the special relationship, and he ostentatiously sent a bust of Churchill in the Oval Office back to the British embassy. For his part, Cameron said in 2006, on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, that Britain “should be solid but not slavish in our friendship with America.” He said the British government under Tony Blair had become “uncritical allies of America,” this at a time when the war in Iraq had become unpopular in Britain.
The most offensive slight, however, was delivered in a written statement by the State Department in February. It declared the United States to be neutral in the dispute between Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands. “The United States recognizes the de facto U.K. administration of the islands but takes no position on the sovereignty claims of either party,” it said.
This infuriated the Brits, understandably so. Argentina has no legitimate claim to the Falklands, and the Kirchner regime in Argentina is both corrupt and noisily anti-American. The U.S. statement made sense only if the administration sought to curry favor with Argentina at the expense of a loyal ally.
And the administration’s stance, presumably approved by Obama, clashed sharply with President Reagan’s support for Britain during the Falklands war in 1982. Reagan, too, faced pressure from inside his administration to side with Argentina’s military government at the time. But he decided his relationship with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, his close friend and ally, was more important than anything that might be gained from backing Argentina or remaining neutral.
The Reagan-Thatcher alliance, a high point of the special relationship, exemplified the benefits for both countries of a tight and friendly association. The relationship enhanced Britain’s position in the world and allowed the United States to stand firm on issue after issue with a reliable ally at its side.
“For almost every British prime minister from Churchill on, it has been a major objective to influence the thinking of the president of the United States,” Geoffrey Smith wrote in his book Reagan and Thatcher. “For Britain the special relationship has meant a special opportunity to have an impact on American policy.” Indeed, Thatcher and Churchill had a significant influence, as did Blair in his relationship with Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
What does the United States get out of the partnership with a far less powerful country like Britain? The answer is a lot more than simply an ally who speaks the same language and has similar political and cultural values.
It’s true that American policy is more important to Britain than British policy is to America. But without its deep ties to the United Kingdom, the United States would often be operating alone in the world, with no major ally. Absent Thatcher, Smith wrote, Reagan “would have been a beleaguered figure at economic summits during at least his first term.” She also famously urged the first President Bush not to “go wobbly” after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Bush didn’t.
Putting the partnership back together won’t be easy. Despite his encouraging words last week, Obama seems considerably more interested in China, Russia, and the European Union than in Britain. And unlike most presidents, he doesn’t think close personal ties to foreign leaders are essential.
“Cameron is distinctly pro-American,” says Nile Gardiner, the expert on Britain at the Heritage Foundation. But his deputy prime minister in the new coalition government, Nick Clegg, is anything but. “Clegg is going to have a bit of a dampening effect,” Gardiner says. “He doesn’t believe in the transatlantic alliance. It’s going to be harder for Cameron to be as pro-American as he would like.”
There are specific issues on which Obama and Cameron differ, in addition to the Falklands. The alliance is, partly but importantly, a military one, and Cameron has vowed to cut spending immediately by $9 billion. This is likely to mean reductions in military expenditures to levels that are risky by American standards. Also, Cameron is staying clear of the Greek bailout and is certain to avoid involvement if other European countries face default. Obama is deeply involved.
But Cameron, as the weaker of the two partners, can do only so much to revive the special relationship. The president has to play the bigger role. If he looks at Afghanistan, where Britain has 10,000 troops, and at every other trouble spot, he’ll notice that one country is invariably on America’s side. He shouldn’t be surprised who it is.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.