U.S.-U.K. Special Relationship No Longer So Special

To no one’s surprise, least of all the European Union, Britain’s new foreign secretary, William Hague, opted to visit Washington before setting foot in Brussels. There were several reasons why the Washington trip had priority. One was to reassure the Obama administration on the coalition’s continued commitment to the Afghan conflict. The Liberal Democrat Party, with its left-of-center roots, is viewed somewhat warily in Washington. The party opposed the Iraq war, but views the Afghan war with qualified acceptance.

But as strong Europeanists, the Liberal Democrats are less enthusiastic about being tied too closely to the United States. Prior to the election, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, now deputy prime minister, criticized Tony Blair’s joined-at-the-hip relationship to the Bush administration as “an unseemly knee-bending allegiance to the White House.”

Some of that allegiance, it seems, is already being eroded. At the Liberal Democrats’ instigation, the coalition’s political program includes plans to scrap the biometric passport, introduced at Washington’s insistence for better tracking of visitors to the U.S., but considered by the LibDems as too intrusive of people’s privacy. And Prime Minister David Cameron’s first trip abroad was this week’s stopover visits to Paris and Berlin, where he met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to reassure them about his government’s stance toward its European partners.

Still, the new crowd at Westminster wants to balance relations with Europe by putting new life into the dormant Anglo-American special relationship — but on their own terms. Haig said the coalition wants “solid but not slavish ties” with Washington. But it is Obama who will dictate the terms of the relationship. And Sir David Manning, Britain’s most-recent ex-ambassador to Washington warned a House of Commons committee on U.S.-British relations not to expect too much.

“You have a president who is new to foreign relations, and it is important to understand
that his background is completely different from that of his predecessors,” Manning testified. “He does not come with a knowledge of Europe and of Britain that his predecessors would have had. . . . He is an American who grew up in Hawaii, whose foreign experience was of Indonesia, and who had a Kenyan father. The sentimental reflexes, if you like, are not there. . . . If you want President Obama’s attention at the moment . . . it has to be relevant. You have to bring something important — it has to be something he is struggling with. . . . [His approach] is going to be less sentimental.”

Looking on the bright side, Manning said, the fact that Obama “[is not ] a sentimentalist but a multilateralist” could present opportunities for British interests.

Solid ties with the Obama administration might prove crucial in the future, if the ailing British economy needs rescuing some time down the line — and the new government knows it. The British budget deficit of $235 billion is up there with that of Greece, and Prime Minister David Cameron has promised tough austerity measures to bring the failing economy under control.

For now, Britain is not close to needing such outside assistance. But should Cameron’s efforts fall short, and the British do need bailing out, there will be no help forthcoming from the euro zone. The new government forfeited that by opting out of the recent EU/IMF bailout package for Greece and other shaky euro zone economies. The only recourse will be Washington and the U.S.-controlled International Monetary Fund.

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