President Obama’s visit to the UK has been hailed as a continuation of the long standing ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the United States, a term first coined by Churchill in 1945. Despite the media-friendly pictures (the BBQ banter is truly special) and soundbites however, the visit has marked an interesting and notable development in the link between Britain and America. The introduction of the term ‘essential relationship’ along with President Obama’s speech to Parliament on Wednesday marked a clear departure from previous understandings of the Anglo-American bond. The President’s speech at Westminster Hall on Wednesday was a highly unusual and prestigious event attended by former Prime Ministers, current MPs, Lords and specially invited guests. Starting with a joke, and a light hearted reference to the burning of the White House by the British in 1812, the President seemed relaxed and comfortable in the historic surroundings, but soon the gravitas of the speech and its contents became clear.
Initially the President took the unusual step of defining the term ‘special relationship’. Instead of highlighting traditional understandings of a shared language and background, or more recent notions of diplomatic strategies or economic benefits, the President stated “Our relationship is special because of the values and beliefs that have united our people throughout the ages”. He referenced the Enlightenment, the Declaration of Independence and even slavery, culminating in the assertion that “we have learned better than most that the longing for freedom and human dignity is not English or American or Western – it is universal”. From this point the President moved swiftly to the idea of a military alliance, surely the most concrete and accepted basis of the idea of the special relationship, at least traditionally.
He emphasized the military alliance between the two countries; however it became clear in the speech that the United States no longer sees the special relationship as exclusive. Other countries, for example France, are rapidly becoming third parties to the Anglo-American alliance in both military and economic terms. Indeed the current military engagement in Libya was presented by Obama during his visit as very much a European-led involvement, with the United States taking a back seat. With the rise of global powers such as China and India, this is an interesting move by the United States. By beginning to distance themselves from Europe and Britain, could they be gearing up for a new alliance with an emerging superpower? Or do they not want to be tied to an economically weak and militarily declining Britain?
What was clear over the course of Obama’s visit however was the extent to which the UK, at least, prioritises the relationship. The British media fawned over the President, the Queen hosted a state banquet, Michelle Obama and Samantha Cameron were pictured having a cosy chat in the Cameron’s kitchen, and that’s even before the table tennis and the BBQ. Even the Pope didn’t get that level of treatment (although perhaps his table-tennis skills aren’t up to the standard of Obama’s). Ever since the start of the special relationship things have been one-sided. The US has always been more powerful, more influential, and gained more from its alliance with Britain, especially in terms of intelligence and military deals. The question is often asked therefore what Britain actually gains from the close ties, as it often appears as if the UK’s allegiance is taken for granted by the US, especially during the eight years of the Bush administration.
Despite an accepted view that the UK gains disproportionality from the special relationship, the bond with America is still seen in political circles as a valuable asset. The united front presented to the rest of the world provides a sizeable deterrent for any threats to the UK. The sharing of intelligence in the current climate, the cooperation in terms of rendition and close military alliance all serve to ensure the continued protection of British interests. Moreover, as long as the UK is linked to America, we are not against them, something that can only be positive.
However, there is also a somewhat more convincing case to be made for the idea that in the 21st century it is time for Britain to accept its European identity, to stop pretending to be the 51st state, and to realise that what we gain from the special relationship is not all that beneficial after all. Since Tony Blair left office there has been a visible decline in the promotion of the special relationship by both sides (at least until Obama’s recent visit). This reflects growing concerns that the close links with America are actually detrimental to British interests. Economically for example, the close ties between the American and British economies and stock exchanges meant that the UK was far worse hit than any other European country when the US entered recession in 2007. Moreover, by allying ourselves so closely with America, no more so than with the Iraq War, Britain is much more of a target for Islamic terrorism than other European countries. When Bin Laden was killed earlier this month, revenge attacks were promised for both the US and the UK. Furthermore, the loosening of military ties means that the UK is still expected to support the US, but has to commit more troops and more resources than before. This is clearly seen in Libya, where despite American support their contribution was significantly smaller than previously would have been expected.
All this is not to say that Britain should renounce the special relationship or refuse to host a state visit from an American President, but just suggests that maybe the UK should reconsider its role in Europe. After all, the EU provides all the benefits that are assumed to result from the special relationship, without many of the difficulties or false hopes outlined above. After all, although we may not have “successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them re-imposed at a European level” (Thatcher), nor have we committed over 60 years of aid and help to the United States only to see it vanish when they want it to.