Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Not So Special Relationship

Cameron and Obama serving burgers: on Twitpic
[photo tweeted by the Spectator's Pete Hoskin]

It’s all very friendly. David and Barack have been partnering each other in a table tennis game at a south London school; they’ve been serving up burgers in the No.10 garden; they’ve both been reveling in the pomp of a Buckingham Palace banquet; and they penned a joint article for the ‘Times’ suggesting that their two countries don’t just enjoy a ‘Special’ relationship but an ‘Essential’ one.

Oh dear. Another prime minister bites the dust as he succumbs to the seductive charms of the power and glory of the American presidency. It doesn’t really matter who the president is – although it can’t hinder matters that it is currently the coolest man on the planet, and a man more determined to get his guy than the Terminator. At some point in their premiership career the men, and one woman, at No. 10 quickly fall victim to the belief that Britain enjoys a Special Relationship with the United States. That there is precious little evidence to suggest that the Americans believe the same is clearly neither here nor there. A quick canter through the history of the Special Relationship That Never Was might help a little.

Roosevelt and Churchill.
This is where it was meant to have started. FDR moved heaven and earth to get US aid to brave little Britain, and he and Churchill bestrode the post-war world stage like conquering colossi joined at the hip. Yes?

Er, well not quite. Roosevelt was a thoroughly reluctant interventionist. He gave short shrift to the pro-interventionist Century Group, deferring instead to advisers like Sumner Welles, who in January 1940 was still determined to get Hitler and Mussolini to talk peace. When help did come, Roosevelt extracted everything he could from Britain and then tried to make sure the Atlantic War was firmly eastern focused, which suited American interests better. Neville Chamberlain had always believed that the cost of American help would be too high – he wasn’t wrong. Military bases, trading concessions and considerable regional influence was all ceded to the USA. The Roosevelt-Churchill relationship existed mainly in the mind of Churchill himself, who did so much to propagate it. Which is surprising, given the way FDR himself sought to undermine Churchill in front of Stalin at Yalta.

Truman and Attlee
Well, Attlee didn’t speak much anyway, but his Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin did, and it was Bevin who felt so downtrodden by Truman’s Secretary of State that he advocated British ownership of nuclear weapons, if only so that “no foreign secretary gets spoken to by an American Secretary of State like that again”. It was another Truman Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, who caustically remarked that “Britain has lost an empire but not yet found a role”. Thanks for the support Dean.

Eisenhower
One word really. Suez. When Anthony Eden tried to protect British interests in the Suez Canal, Eisenhower was the first and most important statesman out of the blocks to condemn him. And then begin a run on the pound. Never mind that Khrushchev was slaughtering Hungarian rebels at the time – Britain was Enemy No. 1! Oh, and lest we forget, it was Eisenhower as US Supreme Commander who stymied Churchill and Montgomery’s plan to beat the Russians to Berlin. The Russians weren’t a threat you see.

Nixon and Heath
Possibly the only really effective working relationship between a US President and a British Prime minister, because it was based on an understanding that there wasn’t actually a Special Relationship at all. Both Heath and Nixon believed that America’s real focus in Europe was never going to be a single country, but a united European organization. Nixon, in any case, was very clearly identifying the East as the true arena for US activity.

Reagan and Thatcher
This is where it’s meant to really go into overdrive. If the lovebirds Maggie and ron didn’t have a special relationship, then who did? But, alas, for all their cooing to each other in public, Reagan not only proved notoriously slow to throw support behind Britain in the Falklands crisis, but then didn’t let Thatcher know when he invaded the Commonwealth country of Grenada. Britain had to content herself by joining 108 other nations in condemning the invasion at the UN. Tellingly, Reagan later recollected than when Thatcher phoned him to say he shouldn’t go ahead, "She was very adamant and continued to insist that we cancel our landings on Grenada. I couldn't tell her that it had already begun." Special Relationship indeed.

Bush and Blair
No world leader was more determined to show his support for the US than Tony Blair. No other world leader was greeted familiarly as “Yo, Blair”. But for all the support he gave to George W. Bush’s strategy of middle east invasion, Blair’s voice was heard as tinnily as anyone else’s when it came to trying to influence US foreign policy. It was one of the supreme, defining failures of his premiership.

And now it’s the turn of David Cameron. He admittedly started out with a semblance of independence. He is withdrawing British troops from Afghanistan far more quickly than the Americans would like, and he was clearly speaking with a different voice when he led the calls for action over Libya. If the American President’s state visit is merely an occasion for a good bit of mutual publicity, and some shared thoughts in a common language, then David Cameron may have escaped lightly. If he really starts to believe in a Special Relationship, though, he is as doomed as all of his predecessors. Because, not unsurprisingly, the only Special Relationship America has is with herself.

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