The special, unique, essential relationship

Under David Cameron's tenure, the relationship with the US has moved from special to essential and unique. This week, he'll be looking to continue that trend

Cameron takes in the full experience at March Madness in Ohio with Obama
Dr. James Boys
On 15 March 2012 09:33

British Prime Minister David Cameron will be eager to continue the evolution of what has become, under his tenure, an ‘essential, unique’ relationship with the United States, as he meets President Obama in Washington this week. Expressions come and go of course, but interestingly we have witnessed a reversion to the more traditional ‘special relationship’ language, as the two leaders note in their Washington Post article.

With David Cameron’s approval ratings looking strong and Barack Obama’s figures hinting at a second term, these are two leaders who have every reason to expect to be spending the next 5 years together, forging the next stage in the UK-US relationship. The question is, will they?

It is easy to highlight the changes in emphasis that have accompanied this administration as Obama has more than hinted at a pivot to the Pacific. His roots in Hawaii and Kenya suggest a non-European focus that may be over emphasized, but which appears to coincide with historical trends away from an emphasis on Europe.

We have been here before, of course. In the early 1990s Bill Clinton made a similar entreaty to Asia, a move compounded by a perceived slighting he received whilst a student at Oxford, that caused some to suggest an end to the Special Relationship and a shift from an Atlantic to a Pacific focus for U.S foreign policy in the last decade of the 20th century.

What Clinton discovered was that the region was not as welcoming to America overtures as he would have wished and all too soon his administration was forced to revert to first principles and embrace a Europe-first mentality. He even warmly welcomed Prime Minster John Major to the White House and took him for a spin on Air Force One to visit Pittsburgh of all places!

Some ten years later, Obama's Pacific pivot appears all the more challenging to European sensibilities due to his personal narrative. Yet it is reinforced by his actions and statements. Witness his recent visit to Australia, his reinforcement of basses in the Pacific and recognition of the potential threat from China. Clearly, this is no longer the post-cold war era of the 1990s.

Quite where this leaves the UK is not clear. Past British leaders talked of being a bridge to Europe for the United States, a role that seems rather unnecessary today. Others leaders talked of being Greeks to America's Romans, a term that appears even more condescending today than when it was originally made. So where can David Cameron seek to forge a specific role for himself in his dealings with Obama that will set himself and his nation apart from all others?

The idea that the UK could exert the kind of pressure that Israel could on a sitting American president is unimaginable. There are cultural reasons for this, of course. Despite the role of the UK in the foundation of what became the United States, one never hears talk of English-Americans, unlike, for example, Irish-Americans who have a strong political hold in New York and Massachusetts as well as in other areas of New England. To this end, the Jewish-American constituent is seen as being a powerful domestic influence over administration action in regard to the state of Israel. The UK has no comparable lobby, or domestic constituent. What it does have are ties that permeate many levels of American government and society.

What Cameron can offer Obama is a true friend on the international stage that appears to want relatively little in way of return. You will not find Cameron threatening to embarrass Obama in an election year by taking precipitate action against a rogue state. The UK tried that over the Suez Canal in 1956 and appears to have learnt its lesson.

Ahead of the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington, the US ambassador to London reported that Barack Obama relies on David Cameron more than any other leader. Ambassador Susman hailed the “essential relationship” between Britain and America and praised Mr Cameron’s “aggressive” leadership. Susman highlighted the many areas of joint US-UK cooperation that included intelligence sharing in relation to the Olympics, joint missions in Afghanistan, a united front in relation to Iran and on a personal basis, the warmth between the two families.

Indeed, Susman, who was a major contributor to the Obama campaign in 2008 and received his just reward, highlighted the relationship between the two men. “He has a very special relationship, as he calls it an essential relationship, with the United Kingdom and Prime Minister Cameron,” he said.

Susman is a diplomat sent abroad to be diplomatic. Yet even cynics would be hard pushed to throw cold water on the warmth of his words ahead of the visit. It stands in stark contrast to previous visits and relations between former presidents and prime ministers. Hopefully, this tip will end the constant, incorrect harping in reference to Obama’s return of the Churchill bust, lent specifically to President George W. Bush, and an act that was not intended as a snub of any kind. And if Gordon Brown couldn’t figure out how to region-hack a DVD player to accept American discs, he really had no place running the country!

The hospitality that the Prime Minister has received, including his flight aboard Marine One and Air Force One to attend the March Madness basketball game in Dayton, Ohio are heavy with symbolism and importance. This single event in a three day itinerary full of important incidents, will have afforded the Prime Minister at least five hours worth of uninterrupted time in the presence of the American president, something that any world leader would give their right arm to replicate.

The glowing reception on the White House lawn gave an insight to the bonds that the two nations share. Two hundred years ago, the British were burning the White House. Today the British Prime Minster is an honored and valued guest.

The talks that follow will address weighty issues of state: Afghanistan, Syria, Iran. This is not a frivolous visit. Timing has made it fortuitous that the men meet at this time and place and their shared commitment to ensuring the survival of the Transatlantic relationship, be it special, unique or essential, is in all our best interest.

Dr. James D. Boys is an Associate Professor of International Political Studies at Richmond, the American International University in London. See his website at www.jamesdboys.comand follow him on twitter @jamesdboys

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