Since President Barack Obama took office, the U.S.-U.K. “special relationship” has been in free fall. The first manifestation of this decline, shortly after the President’s inauguration, was Obama’s sudden return of the Winston Churchill bust from the Oval Office, loaned to the U.S. by the British people as a gesture of solidarity after 9/11. A series of incidents followed. Now, the British even see the Obama administration’s treatment of BP in the wake of the Gulf oil spill in this light. Rough periods in the relationship are nothing new, but this one is different and likely will prove very difficult to undo, if it isn’t already too late.
The United States, having begun life as 13 British colonies, shares a common language, culture, and history with the U.K. which formed enduring bonds between the two countries. Despite the unpleasantness of 1776 and 1812, the United Kingdom became the United States’ closest and most important ally. Only Australia has been more consistently beside us in war in the last 100 years—the Brits sat out Vietnam.
U.S.-U.K. cooperation, however, is unprecedented. Beyond all we share with close allies in NATO and with Australia and Japan, we share nuclear weapons development with the U.K. The bond of trust between two countries doesn’t get any closer than that.
Nevertheless, every post-World War II U.S. President, with the exception of Ronald Reagan in his relationship with Margaret Thatcher, has had significant policy differences with his British counterpart. President John F. Kennedy and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, for example, had their Skybolt crisis, when Kennedy and his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, tried to divest the United Kingdom of its nuclear deterrent.
Policy differences are common, especially because the U.S. and the U.K. frequently find themselves governed by parties at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Even then, in times of crisis the two countries have come together. Liberal Labor Party Prime Minister Tony Blair flew to Washington immediately after 9/11 to affirm British solidarity with the United States. Until Blair left office in 2007 he remained tight with conservative Republican President George W. Bush, supporting Bush’s invasion of Iraq and U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. Neither was popular in the UK.
What’s different about the past 18 months is that the strains in the relationship haven’t been over policy differences but over the relationship itself. Numerous breeches in protocol are symptomatic of the problem; and, taken as a whole, they suggest that Obama wants to put an end to the special relationship.
The most egregious breech occurred in March 2009, on Brown’s official visit to Washington, Obama failed to meet the prime minister at the airport as was traditional. The President’s official gift to Brown was a set of DVDs in the wrong format in exchange for a pen holder carved from the timbers of the sister ship of the HMS Resolute—that provided the wood for the Oval Office’s “Resolute Desk”—the framed commission of the HMS Resolute, and a seven-volume biography of Winston Churchill.
According to writer Warner Todd Huston, during Brown’s visit “at least one person in Obama’s administration denigrated the famed ‘special relationship’ that the U.S. and the U.K. have had since WWII. When Brown’s aids tried to interact with Obama’s, one of Obama’s aids reportedly said that there was no special relationship and that the Brits would be treated like any other nation in the age of Obama.”
In this context, current U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has come to the defense of BP, emphasizing the economic value it brings to the U.S. and the U.K. and demonstrating British concern over Obama administration rhetoric about the British company’s role in the Gulf oil spill and its aftermath.
Certainly, the Democrat or Republican President who follows Mr. Obama could do much to restore the special relationship after 2012 or 2016, but in the 21st century, forces beyond the Obama administration are also having their effect. Obama’s actions only accelerate them.
The world is a much different place than it was during World War II, the Cold War, or even during the last two decades of the 20th century. Facist/imperial-democratic and east-west divides have given way to supra-national and home-grown terrorist threats. Globalization has infiltrated national economies. Creeping global governance has begun to undermine national sovereignty.
The U.S and the U.K., slowly but surely, whether by default or design, are becoming less dependent on each other and more dependent on the “international community” for a broad spectrum of their political, economic, and national security needs.
At the same time young Americans are no longer inculcated with the shared history and traditional values of the American and British peoples as before. Textbooks in the liberal-dominated academic community excessively deemphasize Great Britain’s contributions to America and the world, focusing more on the contributions of other countries and peoples.
Obama himself, although for somewhat different reasons, is an example of someone who did not grow up in an environment which nurtured positive images of Great Britain. His Kenyan ancestry and its British colonial history, some believe, are what led him to return the Churchill bust. Indeed, Obama may very well believe that lingering resentment of Britain’s colonial past in the Muslim and Third Worlds encumbers his attempts to reach out to them and he wants to distance himself and America from it.
Be all this as it may, Americans and President Obama would do well to remember that it was Great Britain’s long struggle with democracy that made the United States of America possible. For the past 100 years Great Britain has been integral to America’s rise to the pinnacle of power and influence. If we want to remain there we require the friendship and support the British people and government provide. The United States has no better friend and ally than Great Britain. She will always be there when we need her if we treat her right. We abandon the special relationship at our peril. Let us hope that it’s not too late to save it.