UK, U.S. and their special relationship

Karyn McDermott Contributor
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The famed ‘special relationship’ between the United States and the United Kingdom began on Sept. 11.

Not Sept. 11, 2001, with President George W. Bush in the White House and Prime Minister Tony Blair in No. 10 Downing Street when hijacked planes flew into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, but in 1939, just a few days after Adolf Hitler initiated World War II by invading Poland in what is otherwise known as the September Campaign.

In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote a brief but crucial message to Winston Churchill who was then Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty. Churchill could not know it at the time but this would mark the beginning of one of political history’s most extraordinary relationships. The correspondence that ensued was intimate and unparalleled among world leaders and led to the unique military alliance among two sovereign states.

The term ‘Special Relationship’ was first used by Churchill during his Iron Curtain speech in March 1946 to describe the ties binding the two countries that battled side by side to liberate Europe.

Tuesday afternoon, the phone rang in No. 10, the home and office of the Prime Minister of Great Britain and on the other end was President Barack Obama as is tradition. The new Prime Minister had only been in office a matter of minutes having just returned from nearby Buckingham Palace where Her Majesty the Queen invited him to form a government. And, also in line with tradition, they “kissed hands”. David Cameron is 12th Prime minister under Queen Elizabeth’s reign with Sir Winston Churchill her first.

The accord between the United States and the United Kingdom, like any relationship, has had its ups and its downs depending on, like any partnership, the two players involved.

What, if anything, do the President and the Prime Minister have in common?

They are both relatively young, in their 40s with telegenic wives and young families. Obama is the youngest President since John F. Kennedy and one would have to go back to Lord Liverpool in 1812 to find a younger Prime Minister than the current MP for Witney.

They were both elected because they asked voters to vote for “change” – Obama’s “Change we can Believe in” is not dissimilar to the Conservative’s “Year for Change” campaign slogan. Now that they are both in office, what is this change and will the relationship be between these two traditional cultural, historic and military allies?

The two men have met before in July 2008 and reports differ as to the meeting’s success. Before entering the White House candidate Obama took a trip to Europe and met with then PM Gordon Brown. They would go on to have a less than friendly leader-to-leader relationship as President and Prime Minister. Obama then snuck in a meeting with the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition and the leader of the Conservatives, the Hon. David Cameron MP.

Obama was reportedly “distinctly unimpressed” and commented on Cameron to aides: “What a lightweight!” Apparently Cameron had attempted to stress his pro-American stance while downplaying his Party’s euro- scepticism. This, just 48 hours after Obama had addressed thousands in Berlin in what his aides referred to as ‘almost Kennedyesque’. He stressed “the importance of Europe’s role in our security and our future.” There were at opposites on Europe already.

At the meeting’s conclusion, Obama asked officials for more information on Conservative Party skepticism toward the European Union, noting that Britain still used the pound sterling and no the euro as its currency.

This background briefing, no doubt updated tenfold, will assist President Obama as he and Cameron try to come to grips with the European financial meltdown. Stakes are high and with the necessary austerity measures being met with riots and strikes in Greece; similar unrest is brewing in Spain and Portugal despite the $1 trillion pledged to help these struggling economies.

Ratings agencies have indicated the UK may lose its AAA credit rating and jittery investors, focused on foreign debt issues are more than eager to hear detailed plans and soon.

How much new British Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the left-of-center Liberal Democrats will influence British foreign and military policy is anyone’s guess. Nick Clegg, who sees himself more European than British, did not support the Iraq invasion and has long been critical of the Conservative Party’s “subservience” and “default Atlanticism”. This will make for awkward Cabinet decisions despite the smiles at their first press conference Wednesday.

Many experts anticipate Clegg and his Liberal Democrats will act as a check on the Conservatives’ traditional wariness of the euro zone but in Cabinet will have limited impact on defense matters such as reviving the Trident submarine and other independent nuclear deterrents their coalition partners, the Tories, had promised and expected to deliver.

A more pragmatic relationship is already pledged to the US/UK ‘special relationship.’ This will be necessary due to sticking points like the Group of 20 nations’ talks on global financial reform and the war in Afghanistan. New British Foreign Secretary said Wednesday it would be his top priority ahead of the new government’s US-style National Security Council which will coordinate the work of defense, foreign, interior, energy and international departments. The UK has around 10,000 troops in Afghanistan largely fighting the Taliban in Helmand province. London also plays a key role with Washington in pressuring Iran over its plans for a nuclear program. However, Britain’s usefulness to Washington, and that is what it is, is further likely to decline as David Cameron and his Tory colleagues emphasize what is termed a “solid but not slavish” friendship.

Since Obama has occupied the Oval Office, relations between the US and UK have had some awkward and embarrassing moments such as the return of a bust of Winston Churchill displayed by the previous President and the gift to her Majesty the Queen of a personalized iPod. This sent the British tabloid press into an anti-American frenzy and only added to the growing list of Obama’s perceived gaffes such as bowing the Saudi king and Japanese emperor.

President Obama set the tone Tuesday in a statement prepared by the US State Department with the British Foreign Service providing the Prime Ministerial response as is tradition.

“As I told the Prime Minister, 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,” President Obama’s statement read.

Obama added that in their Tuesday conversation “we both reaffirmed the extraordinary special “relationship between the US and Great Britain” and that “it’s not going to go away.”

Wednesday Obama said he found Mr. Cameron to be a “smart, dedicated, effective leader.”

So on Day One the ‘special relationship’ is still that – special. For how long remains to be seen as some transatlantic experts suggest that political differences may be the problem with Obama looking to expand government and Cameron looking to shrink it.

On the other hand, they both exhibit an elitist heir with Obama a Harvard man and Cameron a graduate of Oxford. They are both from the same era as were previous ’special relationship successes like Reagan and Thatcher, Clinton and Blair and even Bush and Blair.

The personal friendship between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher was a most symbiotic partnership. Reflecting on the downfall of the Soviet Union and other foreign policy achievements, Thatcher declared: “The Anglo-American relationship has done more for the defense and future of freedom than any other alliance in the world”. The two were undoubtedly political and policy counterparts.

So too were President Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. This pairing brought an opportunity to revive the two nations’ “unique partnership” as Clinton described it. On their first meeting the President said: “Over the last fifty years our unbreakable alliance has helped to bring unparalleled peace and prosperity and security. It’s an alliance based on shared values and common aspirations.”

The warm personal relationship between the two men was seen as with the leaders seen as kindred spirits policy-wise with their ‘Third Way’ and social democratic approach to their respective domestic agendas.

September 11 again drew the United States and Great Britain together. After the 2001 attacks Prime Minister, Tony Blair, flew immediately to Washington D.C. to affirm the United Kingdom’s solidarity and was invited to address Congress. President George W. Bush declared “America has no truer friend than Great Britain” and Blair then embarked on months of diplomacy rallying international support for military action. There was a large downside to this as the war in Iraq and the reasoning behind it led to Blair becoming increasingly unpopular within his own Party, a lowering of his public approval ratings and alienation among his European partners such as France and Germany. It also led to ridicule for Blair as he became known as “Bush’s poodle” worsened by Bush calling Blair his “boy”.

The troughs of the special relationship were obvious even to the players themselves: Nixon and Heath; Ford, Carter and Callaghan; Clinton and Major; and until last week, Obama and Brown.

Now it’s President Obama and new Prime Minister, David Cameron. Just how special this relationship will be will depend on how they handle events separately and together. With no real end to the Afghanistan fight in sight and Iran flexing its potentially nuclear muscles, the geopolitical map changing as developing countries continue to emerge and global instability makes for a pretty tall in-tray.  The two men would do well to rely on their similarities of temperament and ‘big picture’ outlook than run the risk of petty minutiae sidetracking them from what will be real and lasting global change. Perhaps this is the ‘change’ we voted for.

Karyn McDermott has two decades of experience in politics and communications in the U.S., U.K. and Australia. Presently, she is the creator and director of the a libertarian/conservative website. She has been published both internationally and locally.