America, Britain Remain “Essential,” Says Obama

The “special relationship” may not be so special anymore but Anglo-American leadership remains essential.

Prime Minister David Cameron and President Barack Obama walk across the South Lawn of the White House, July 20, 2010
Prime Minister David Cameron and President Barack Obama walk across the South Lawn of the White House, July 20, 2010 (White House/Pete Souza)

Although Barack Obama’s state visit to the United Kingdom may once again beg reflection of the state of the “special relationship” that is supposed to bond the two Atlantic nations together, the president praised both as “indispensable in this moment in history” as the values shared by Americans and Britons are resonating powerfully across the world.

Ahead of his address to a rare joint session of the British Parliament, Obama and his counterpart David Cameron met to discuss what they now describe as an “essential relationship,” which, according to the prime minister, continues to serve both their interests.

Last year, the conservative criticized his nation’s “seemingly endless preoccupation with the health of the special relationship,” suggesting that it remains strong because it delivers for both partners.

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.

President Obama also mentioned those areas of common interest although in none of them, Anglo-American cooperation is unique. As James Pritchett pointed out here last year, “happy coincidences and events which seem to be now of questionable importance” can hardly constitute the backbone of a “special” relationship.

The two countries have more in common, including a shared doctrine on trade, at least “some of the time,” according to Pritchett; a shared doctrine of liberal interventionism; close military cooperation and “somewhat frequent cooperation in international institutions.”

Apart from that it’s hard to think of anything meaningful or worth entertaining as anything other than a cultural token viz “standing shoulder to shoulder against fascism” and other well known extracts from your school history lessons.

Rather the special relationship took something of a beating last year when President Obama carelessly returned a bust of Winston Churchill and his secretary of state questioned British claims in the Falklands.

Recently, Britain and France have urged the United States to deepen their involvement in Libya where the allies intervened to prevent the massacre of civilians at the hands of a dictator. While both leaders affirmed their intention to see the Libyan intervention through until Muammar Gaddafi goes, Obama did not pledge an increase in support.

In the long run, American involvement in the Pacific is set to become far more important than its security commitment to Europe, while, to quote Pritchett once more, “the other side of the special relationship continues to make odd bedfellows in Brussels.”

Cameron last year acknowledged that both the United Kingdom and the United States have a “responsibility to engage more widely and bring new countries to the top table of the international community,” but this is not to diminish Anglo-American power. Indeed, “it’s the only way we will maintain our influence in a changing world.” He pointed out that Britain maintains special relationships of its own with former imperial assets like India, Pakistan and the tiny Persian Gulf states. For all three though, America is now the superpower that matters, having replaced the British Empire as the preeminent foreign power in South Asia and the Middle East.

In his speech on Wednesday, Obama acknowledged the rise of nations as Brazil, China and India but professed that the time for American and British leadership hadn’t passed. “We remain the greatest catalysts for global action,” he said, pointing out that time and again, the two Atlantic nations and NATO intervened to prevent carnage and destruction. “If we fail to meet that responsibility, who would that place?” For all their economic potential, emerging powers are indeed unwilling to accept a broader security responsibility so “our leadership,” Obama told the British, “is essential to the cause of human dignity.”