Ahead of his visit to Washington DC this week, British prime minister David Cameron wrote an article in The Wall Street Journal about the state of the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States. The Conservative leader dismisses the “seemingly endless British preoccupation with the health of the special relationship.” It remains “strong,” he believes, “because it delivers for both of us.”
Critics of the special relationship, according to Cameron, are divided in three camps: “those who question the whole concept, those who say it is no longer ‘special,’ and those fixated on form rather than substance. Each of them,” he claims, “is misguided.”
The first group likes to think of America as something of an “evil empire” and may be longing for the days of splendid isolation instead. Cameron isn’t having any of that. The United States, he writes, “is a formidable force for good.”
Together we fought fascism, stood up to communism and championed democracy. Today we are combating international terrorism, pressing for peace in the Middle East, working for an Iran without the bomb and tackling climate change and global poverty.
The countries’ histories and their shared liberal internationalism with its commitment to free trade and fostering democracy worldwide naturally bond them together. Although Cameron disputes it, there is something of an argument to be made for past ties and loyalty.
Another set of critics argue that the once special relationship isn’t so special anymore. The US wouldn’t care about Britain, they allege, because it doesn’t bring enough to the table. According to Cameron, this overlooks Britain’s unique relations across the world — “throughout the Gulf States and with India and Pakistan, not to mention the strong ties with China and our links through the Commonwealth with Africa and Australia.” It’s difficult to ascertain just how useful these ties are to America’s interests but Britain’s diplomatic service is supposed to yield considerable clout still in former parts of the empire.
Lastly, “there are those who over-analyze the atmospherics around the relationship.”
They forensically compute the length of meetings; whether it’s a brush-by or a full bilateral; the number of mentions in a president’s speech; dissecting the location and grandeur of the final press conference — fretting even over whether you’re standing up or sitting down together.
It’s absurd, Cameron writes, to apply this sort of Kremlinology to “our oldest and staunchest ally.”
The prime minister understands that Britain is, and always has been, the junior partner in the relationship and he doesn’t worry about America’s cultivating of relations with other great powers, quite unlike the rest of Europe which is increasingly skeptical about Barack Obama’s commitment to the transatlantic alliance. “In a world of fast growing, emerging economies, we have a responsibility to engage more widely and bring new countries to the top table of the international community,” he attests. “To do so is pro-American and pro-British, because it’s the only way we will maintain our influence in a changing world.”
Yet it’s exactly the most important issue currently before the international community where Britain and the United States collide. Cameron admits that there is discord on free trade. He points out that “Britain is open for business” but diplomatically refrains from blaming the Obama Administration for its protectionist stimulus measures which nearly all of the world’s other leading economies despise. “Trade isn’t a zero-sum game,” he suggests.
Just because another nation’s exports grow doesn’t mean your own have to fall. When we import low cost goods from China we’re not failing, we’re benefiting — from choice, competition and low prices.
Not everyone in America feels quite the same way. When Cameron and Obama met for three hours and lunch on Tuesday, they reportedly discussed Afghanistan and Middle East strategy. The prime minister is set to talk about trade policy with Vice President Joe Biden and members of Congress later this week however.