Sure as eggs is eggs, the arrival of a new American president heralds fresh fretting in the British press over the precise state of the so-called “Special Relationship”. Today’s text comes courtesy of Rachel Sylvester, writing in the Times. It’s worth considering in some detail:
The inauguration of a president who is adored by the British public could ironically spell the end of the special relationship between the UK and the US. Just as the voters in this country decide that it is time to get up close and personal with America, so the Yanks are losing their passion for the Brits. Just as the Prime Minister decides it is time to stand shoulder to shoulder with the US president, so he may find the cold shoulder turned on him.
This is partly but not entirely about Mr Obama. Certainly, the President-elect will be the least Anglophile American leader in living memory. Unlike Bill Clinton, who was educated at Oxford, or George Bush, who kept a bust of Winston Churchill in the Oval Office, Mr Obama has no innate affection for this country – in fact, his grandfather was imprisoned and tortured by British colonialists in Kenya.
This isn’t quite true. Or rather, it’s a rewriting of history. Clinton may have been a Rhodes Scholar but he didn’t hugely enjoy his time in Oxford. More to the point, when he came to power there was much talk in Washington about Germany replacing Britain as Washington’s Best Pal in Europe. (The fact that the Major government had, foolishly, acceded to the Bush campaign’s request for any dirt from Bill’s time in Oxford didn’t help.) More pertinently, with the exception of Kennedy (who got on well with Macmillan) Democratic presidents have tended, initially at least, to be less enamoured of the specialness of the “Special Relationship” than have Republicans (Nixon excepted).
Indeed, if memory serves, there’s a passage in George Stephanopoulus’s memoir of the Clinton White House when, prior to Clinton’s first meeting with Major, his aides reminded him of the importance (to the British) of mentioning the magic phrase. “Ah yes” Clinton chuckled, “the Special Relationship”. Well, he said the right words and everyone went home happy.
“The UK is part of the Bush baggage because of Iraq,” says a senior Foreign Office source. “Obama is not going to be emotional about the transatlantic alliance. He’s a free-thinking politician, driven by science and facts. The UK and Europe look less significant than Asia and Latin America and even over here Europe seems a better focus than the UK.”
Well, yes. The post-Cold War era necessarily brings with it a decline in the central importance of the Atlantic Alliance. Equally, Obama doubtless appreciates that there’s a limit to how much more Britain can do in, say, Afghanistan. No wonder he may ask for more from other European countries. Still, we swam in these waters in 1992 too and, as Macmillan put it, “events, dear boy, events” helped ensure matters turned out rather differently.
The British position has not been helped by Sir Nigel Sheinwald, the Ambassador to Washington, a career diplomat educated at Oxford, whose pin-striped demeanour does not fit easily with the open-necked attitude of the Obama camp. A memo, leaked last year, in which our man in DC described the President-elect as “aloof”, “insensitive” and lacking a track record did not go down well with a politician who already suspected the British of having a superiority complex.
Is this true? The memo was as controversial as a Financial Times profile. That is to say, it was not at all controversial and could have been written by any half-decent UK correspondent in DC. More to the point, in terms of future policy, the British do often seem to have a “superiority complex”. We keep banging on – in the press at least – about how much smarter and more sophisticated our approach in Iraq and Afghanistan is than that favoured by those drop-a-cluster-bomb-first-ask-questions-later heavy-handed Yankee cowboys. This rather flatters us and, I suspect, often falsely so. The days of pretending to play Athens to Washington’s Rome should be over.
Equally, Gordon Brown’s claims to have “saved the world” in the current economic crisis have not been endorsed by actual events and, quite reasonably, have irritated everyone else who might reasonably ask why they should take lectures from the man responsible for leaving Britain less well-placed than any other major power to deal with these frigid economic conditions.
Perhaps most important of all, the military alliance between Britain and America – which has cemented the political alliance since the First World War – is beginning to crack. I am told that a report circulating at the highest level in the Ministry of Defence concludes that there are now serious doubts in Washington about the effectiveness of the British Armed Forces. Senior military figures are said to have been surprised, and shocked, by feedback that arrived in Whitehall last month. Described as “highly sensitive”, it raised questions about the worth of the UK contribution to US-led operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It showed that the Americans don’t value us much,” one source told me. “Britain’s military ability is no longer rated as highly as we thought it was.”
“The US generals think the Brits need to be taken down a peg or two – that we have not performed well in Basra and Helmand province – and that has trickled up to the Pentagon,” says a Foreign Office insider. “It’s not terminal but it’s an important warning to us that if we are going to trade on our military partnership we are going to have to raise our game.”
This too seems fair enough. Given the appallingly under-funded, under-equipped nature of the UK armed forces it’s entirely reasonable for the Americans to wonder if the advantages of the political cover Britain provides are beginning to be outwieghed by the shortfall in British military capability. Having spent a decade refusing to fund the armed forces properly, this is a situation for which Brown is largely responsible himself.
Then again, to be fair to the former Chancellor, he was only adhering to the long-standing British tradition of trying to do too much with too few resources. Even in times of Great National Effort we have routinely sent the boys into battle with lousy equipment. This is not a new phenomenon: in the Napoleonic Wars many, perhaps even most, of the Royal Navy’s best ships were captured French and, especially, Spanish vessels that were better-built than their British counterparts built shoddily and cheaply in dockyards (both Royal and private) in which penny-pinching and corruption were the norm not the exception. So not much has changed.
Mr Obama won power promising change. Mr Brown wants nothing more than to bask in the reflected glory of that. But it looks as if the Anglo-American alliance will be one of the first targets for change. One minister says the “specialness” in the special relationship will be diluted. It may not survive at all.
Well, maybe. I’m all for Obama sticking it to Brown, but it would be nice if the transatlantic relationship weren’t quite so humiliating and that we learnt that there’s a price to be paid for fealty to American leadership, one, moreover, that is not necessarily in Britain’s own national interests. As against that, the nature of things is that, regardless of press speculation, London and Washington are likelier than not to remain closer than Washington and most other capitals around the world if for no other reason than the intelligence and military experience they share is likely to remain a valuable resource for both parties. Nonetheless, on balance, it’s a good thing if there’s also better relations between Washington and Paris (and Berlin). That necessarily undermines the primacy of the DC-London axis, but that may not be a Bad Thing either.
Alex Massie is an Irish-educated Scotish journalist living in England. This essay originally appeared on his weblog, The Debatable Land.