America and Britain: a not-so-special relationship

Like two men clinging together in a storm, the US and UK’s ‘essential relationship’ is born of powerlessness.

Patrick Hayes

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The first state visit to the UK by US president Barack Obama has been quite the PR triumph. Relations between the two governments may have hit a rocky patch during the Gordon Brown years, but be in no doubt: the US and the UK are well and truly back together. Not only is Obama sleeping at Buckingham Palace and playing ping pong with David Cameron, but the two leaders’ rebranding of the ‘special relationship’ as an ‘essential relationship’ is tantamount to a renewal of vows.

It seems that part of this new special relationship is a writing partnership between Obama and Cameron. For the second time in two months, the US president and UK prime minister have shared a newspaper byline (the first being with French president Nicolas Sarkozy regarding plans for their joint intervention in Libya). This time, Obama and Cameron have penned an article for The Times (London) emphasising what they have in common, from the fact that they both ‘came of age’ in the 1980s, to the ‘deep emotional connection’ between the US and UK.

This latest love-in follows a difficult period in transatlantic relations. In 2009, things hit a postwar low when the UK decided to release Libyan Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing. Al-Megrahi promptly returned to a hero’s welcome in Libya, much to the chagrin of US officials who had taken a hard line against his release on compassionate grounds due to his terminal cancer. Although the then British prime minister Gordon Brown tried to absolve himself of responsibility, claiming it was a decision for the devolved Scottish government, this simply revealed both the British government’s impotence and its incompetence. As Mick Hume pointed out on spiked at the time, ‘if the US cannot even rely on Britain to back up a propaganda crusade against those deemed terrorists and tyrants, what use is any special relationship to Washington?’

The situation in 2009 stood in stark contrast to the strong UK-US partnership demonstrated in 1986 when Margaret Thatcher’s wholeheartedly supported America’s targeted attack on Colonel Gaddafi in Libya. UK backing ensured that the US could be seen to have a staunch ally, protecting not just its interests, but those of democracy and the ‘free world’.

The reason for various British government’s attempts to toady-up to the US is not hard to fathom. Since the end of the Second World War, Britain’s standing as an economic and political power has been in terminal decline, its former globe-straddling empire having crumbled. America, on the contrary, emerged from the war as the leading global superpower, a position greatly reinforced by the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late Eighties. As a result, British leaders have time and again used the ‘special relationship’ as a way of managing the UK’s decline on the world stage, while still maintaining a place alongside the US at the high table.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that this relationship has often proven somewhat one-sided, with the UK’s love and support not always being reciprocated. For example John F Kennedy encouraged Britain to sign up to the European Economic Community (EEC) in the early 1960s; and Ronald Reagan took a long time to side with the UK when it went to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands in 1982 – and even then, Reagan was reluctant.

This is not to say that there hasn’t always been a degree of interdependency between the two countries. For example, far from being the obedient poodle he was often painted as by his critics, it was UK prime minister Tony Blair who provided much of the rhetoric used by US president George W Bush to justify wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (see Bush was Blair’s poodle, by Brendan O’Neill). With Gaddafi now once again a leading bogeyman in the eyes of both the US and the UK, Cameron and Obama can resurrect the Blairite talk of humanitarian interventionism. Hence in the The Times, both Cameron and Obama declare that they have ‘prevented a humanitarian catastrophe’ and that their countries will work together to ensure that ‘Gaddafi’s reign represents the region’s past’.

But this relationship, with the al-Megrahi affair apparently forgiven and forgotten, seems to have less to do with Cameron proving himself as a world leader – able to avoid the cock-ups that led to the US distancing itself from Brown – than it does with the increasing disorientation of the US on the world stage. One of the revealing aspects of the recent intervention in Libya was the reluctance of the US to take the lead, with Obama equivocating before committing America to the conflict and then, after a short period of grandstanding, rapidly taking a backseat and failing to supply any significant muscle to proceedings.

Furthermore by repeatedly trumpeting the killing of Osama bin Laden as being the ‘most significant blow against al-Qaeda since its inception’ in their Times article, Obama and Cameron reveal how scarce such victories have actually been. And their wholehearted alignment with the ‘momentous’ events of the Arab spring conveniently glosses over the fact that the US was continually caught on the back foot, reacting to events rather than giving direction to them. Even now, both governments are nervous about throwing their lot in with the protesters fighting for democracy in Syria and Bahrain.

Though not in the way they intend, Cameron and Obama get it right when they say that they ‘look at the world in a similar way, share the same concerns and see the same strategic possibilities’. More than ever before, this newly rebranded ‘essential relationship’ does not appear to be a relationship between a confident superpower and a weakening, but staunch ally. Rather it seems to be a relationship between two declining powers huddled together in a storm over which they have no control. Increasingly unable to wield a strong influence over global events, both partners in the special relationship now resort to hollow posturing in the hope that the rhetoric will stick: ‘for those who wish us harm, there can be no impunity, no refuge’.

However, while both the UK and US may more and more fall back on each other for legitimacy and to give a collective impression of strength, to the rest of the world, this ‘essential relationship’ is likely to be of increasingly little significance.

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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