Cameron on the Special Relationship

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 United States 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.

Are We Still Friends?

Barack Obama may seem to be adopting European policies at home yet transatlantic relations remain bitter and strained. Much of the European public still adores the president but the continent’s political leadership is positively disillusioned.

The rapture became apparent last year when in March, the Czech prime minister characterized the Obama Administration’s bailouts and stimulus policies as “the road to hell.” The president visited Strasbourg, France the very next month to deplore the growing antipathy between Europe and the United States. Europeans were too often guilty of an “insidious” anti-Americanism, he believed, while Americans had at times “shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive” of Europe’s accomplishments.

As far as Europe was concerned, the analysis rang true. Anti-Americanism had been on the rise in the wake of President George W. Bush’s supposedly preemptive war against Iraq which traditional European allies like France and Germany had refused to support. What’s more, the Americans just didn’t seem to realize what immense progress the European countries were making in coming to a permanent political union. At times, it appeared as though Washington would rather their allies formed a United States of Europe already and get it over with — something which every politico outside of Brussels knows is impossible.

No matter his sound analysis, the president has hardly managed to reassure Europe. Instead there is doubt about his commitment to the Atlantic alliance ever since he declared himself a “Pacific president” while in February, the White House signaled its frustration with Europe’s apparent lack of cohesive leadership by not having Obama show up for a EU-USA summit in Madrid, Spain.

Further discord has subsequently erupted over how best to tackle the global recession. Since Greece nearly bankrupted itself last April, Europe has been preaching austerity and pondering tougher budget rules to apply to all eurozone members. Ahead of the G20 summit in Toronto, Canada last month, President Obama urged his colleagues to keep spending instead and so stimulate their economies into a speedy recovery. He couldn’t persuade Europe’s largely conservative leadership though and the world’s strongest economies agreed to cut their deficits in half by 2013. Obama headed home, claiming victory but obviously unable to get the rest of the world to mimic his Keynesian approach.

Little wonder that European Commission President José Barroso told The Times last week that, “The transatlantic relationship is not living up to its potential.”

Ever since the end of the Cold War there has been mounting frustration in the United States about Europe supposedly free riding on American power. Charles Krauthammer powerfully revealed that there is such a thing as anti-Europeanism with the American right when in April of last year he lambasted the continent for “sucking on America’s tit for sixty years.”

Many Americans would rather Europe be grateful still for having been saved from German occupation twice in a century than complain about the wars it wages in the Middle East. Even as recent as 2003, when the United States prepared to invade Iraq, references to World War II were abound.

History, however, is no friend to such simplistic references. As much as Europe may benefit from America’s empire today, up to the early twentieth century, the roles were quite reverse, with European powers wielding imperial and brutal force for the United States, isolationist and weary of “permanent alliances,” to prosper.

Yet after nearly a century, the American superpower, some fear, is stagnant. Globalization may well forecast the end of American ascendancy in spite of the United States remaining the cultural, economic and military hegemon of our age. Americans shiver every time they’re told that China now finances their national debt. The country’s public finances may be in a dire state indeed but that alone does not spell doom for its leverage around the world.

At the same time, the rise of China will inevitably result in less American influence and a greater global dependence on Chinese industries and finance. If America is serious about countering perceived Chinese encroachment on its international clout — and judging from its rampant Sinophobia, it is — Europe should be indispensable. To ensure a new Atlantic order that is able to perpetuate the American century, Washington has no choice but to “yank Europe kicking and screaming into conflict zones,” as Robert Kaplan put it. If rather than insulting the continent’s political choices, the administration were to signal more commitment, there may be a lot less kicking in the future.

A Little Atlantic Discord

Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Barack Obama of the United States are reflected in a mirror during a bilateral meeting in Caen, June 6, 2009
Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Barack Obama of the United States are reflected in a mirror during a bilateral meeting in Caen, June 6, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

Doubts about President Barack Obama’s commitment to the transatlantic alliance has surfaced before. At the time, it was premature and unreasonable, considering Obama’s several visits to Europe during the first year of his presidency and the incredible amount of popularity and support he enjoyed with both European leaders and the public. Now, there is rather more reason to suspect a little Atlantic discord.

As Spain took on the presidency of the Council of the European Union for the first six months of this year, Prime Minister Zapatero wished to host the regular EU-USA summit in Madrid next May. Problem is, Europe has a permanent president now and Van Rompuy wanted to have the event in Brussels. As Madrid and Brussels squabbled, Washington sighed and gave up. The White House announced that Obama wouldn’t attend after all. The president, apparently, is too busy with domestic concerns.

P.O. Neill at A Firstful of Euros isn’t having any of it. He notes that the president is skipping the summit because of “plain old irritation with the ‘who’s in charge’ question”. George W. Bush never missed a summit, Neill complains.

So was it that under the pre-Lisbon system, it was easier to figure out the procedural aspects of the summit, or that Bush cared more than Obama about the relationship with the EU as a standalone entity?

“Neither question,” he notes, “is especially comforting for the new retooled EU.”

Undoubtedly there is also still frustration in Washington with Europe’s reluctance to deliver the troops Obama called for in Afghanistan. Moreover, the president’s visit to Copenhagen in December of last year didn’t manage to foster much agreement on how to combat climate change between nations; not the Europeans’ fault, but a useless Eurotrip nonetheless.

Neill is right to bring up the American frustration with Europe’s apparent lack of leadership. While the president and permanent “foreign minister” provided for by the Lisbon Treaty were supposed to allow the union to speak with one voice, the Obama Administration seems to prefer doing business with the governments of the more important individual member states.

If Europe wants to be taken seriously and treated as an equal partner by the Americans, it needs to get its act together. There won’t be any new Atlantic order as long as the European states fail to translate their economic unity into a something of a shared foreign policy approach.

Obama Last Transatlanticist?

Will Barack Obama turn out to be the last transatlantic American president? Nicholas Kitchen wonders in The Washington Note. Although his wind of change met the approval of nearly all of Europe, a series of diplomatic gaffes and mishaps has strained relations, he claims.

The Obama Administration supposedly downgraded ties with Britain from a “special relationship” to a “special partnership” — whatever the difference there might be. As James Pritchett has argued, such a downgrading is not unnatural: Britain simply isn’t the global power it used to be, not in economic nor in military terms and the United States have little reason to pretend otherwise. Kitchen seems to consider it a failure nonetheless.

And it’s not just Britain that Obama managed to upset. No, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy expressed their “annoyance” with his administration’s “attitude toward sensitive historical anniversaries” apparently. According to Kitchen these “diplomatic contretemps” were the products of a serious divide:

[O]ver the best response to the financial crisis and in particular the issue of regulation of complex financial services instruments, with Mirek Topolanek using the Czech Republic’s presidency of the European Union to describe American bailouts and stimulus policies as “the road to hell”.

And what does Obama do? He goes to Asia and declares himself the “Pacific president”.

Outrageous? Not really. Kitchen is fair to note that it’s mostly the Europeans themselves who are to blame:

[T]he truth remains that if Europe wants to be a major player on the world stage it needs to think of its role more strategically and systemically if the United States is not to regard the relationship with China as its most important bilateral tie.

There is probably little that will prevent the Americans from considering the latter relationship of greater significance, however, and for good reason: the Sino-American relationship is bound to define the twenty-first century, one way or another.

At the New Atlanticist, James Joyner defends the Obama Administration’s Pacific orientation. That is not to say Washington has forgotten about Europe, he writes. “Just because other countries now get more attention doesn’t mean the transatlantic relationship isn’t the most important one.”

[I]t’s difficult to imagine an evolution of the international system that would have China — or any other rising power — coming to have more similar values and interests than exists between the United States and Western Europe.

If not for the military and political alliance, that is still strong no matter how little attention President Obama were to pay to it; the cultural and economic ties between both sides of the North Atlantic would suffice to ensure mutual dependence for decades to come. The Obama Administration isn’t neglecting Europe. It simply realizes that there are more partners out there.