America and Britain: The Solid Relationship

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
By Andrew Gawthorpe

Middle Eastern television audiences and the residents of Abbottabad can attest that there has been no shortage of the theatrical in Barack Obama’s foreign policy. His first television interview, given to Al-Arabiya in the first month of his tenure, was an attempt to use his own background and charisma to make an appeal to Muslim publics, while the raid to kill Osama bin Laden combined dramatic theatre on a global stage with an effective use of American power to achieve concrete goals. These events have captured the imagination. 

Yet European politicians and publics have not failed to notice that little of the stardust has come their way, which has sent them into fits of anxious speculation: has America forgotten us, and do we matter anymore?

The feeling of abandonment has been particularly acute in Britain, where the press have issued forth endless commentaries about the “end of the special relationship”, after a series of diplomatic and policy snubs by the Obama administration. Obama’s team racked up such an array of faux pas during his first two years in office that it began to look like a calculated strategy: he gave a gift of 25 DVDs to Prime Minister Gordon Brown (who gave the president a pen holder carved from the anti-slave ship HMS Gannet), sent back a bust of Churchill from the Oval Office within days of moving in, largely removed the phrase “special relationship” from the lexicon of his administration, and called for mediated talks between Argentina and Britain over the future of the Falklands.

The cumulative impact of these steps differed on the left and on the right in Britain. As the Obama administration was supposed to herald the arrival of a new era of American diplomatic sensitivity after the Bush years, the left could forgive the diplomatic snubs while welcoming the downgrading of a “special relationship” that they have largely seen as a stalking horse for an Atlanticist and, over the last decade, increasingly militarized agenda. If the special relationship is dead, then the natural place for the UK to turn is to Europe, which is precisely what the left wishes.  Right-wing politicians, meanwhile, have been leery of criticizing Obama too overtly – he remains popular among a British public largely insensitive to his perceived snubs – while the right-wing media have reacted with predictable fury at what they see as a betrayal, especially over the Falklands.

Both sides would benefit from a more sober analysis of the situation that takes into account the larger contours of Obama’s foreign policy, and where Europe and Britain fit into it. The main theme of Obama’s foreign policy has been a concerted effort in public diplomacy, aimed at improving America’s image in parts of the world where it suffered during the Bush years. While it is undoubtedly true that this image did suffer in Europe, there was a large dividend available to Obama simply by dint of the fact he was not Bush, as Europeans objected to the messenger as much as the message during the previous administration. High-profile presidential efforts at engagement with the world, like the president’s interview on Al-Arabiya, his speech at Cairo University, and his new year’s message to the Iranian people, were not necessary to win over European publics; they were already smitten.

And even though Europe is experiencing unprecedented crises in its monetary union and political framework, the region is better equipped to handle its problems on its own than other parts of the world; American meddling in European politics would only undermine the credibility of European institutions and even discourage their consolidation, which is a long-term US policy goal. At a time when belts are tightening on both sides of the Atlantic, what resources there are must be directed to the areas of most need. One of the richest corners of the globe, which boasts trans-national political and financial institutions supposedly capable of coping with internal crises, is not such an area. Nor is Europe as vital to the resolution of crises elsewhere in the world as it might be if it were to increase its defence and aid budgets.

Of all the countries in Europe, Britain has the most useful assets accessible to the US, and hence has the greatest chance of remaining relevant. Britain has large, battle-hardened armed forces and a tradition of using them- no small thing in an era of counterinsurgency warfare. It also boasts a large English-speaking market and source of investment for American business, and it is outside of the rapidly-disintegrating European monetary union.  And so if we look at the fundamentals of the Anglo-American relationship, we see it as strong as ever. As well as commonalities in language, culture and values, America and Britain have the largest investment relationship in the world, the closest intelligence-sharing relationship, and an intense recent history of military co-operation. The personal chemistry between two leaders or even the priority assigned to Britain among US policymakers at the highest levels is not a matter of great concern unless it disturbs these institutional links, forged every day by businesspeople, soldiers and spooks.

Hence, when considering Obama’s attitude towards Europe as a whole or Britain, it is best to remember Henry Kissinger’s remark that no great power can simultaneously act wisely in all areas of the world at all times.  The series of diplomatic snubs delivered to Britain owe more to inattention than malice aforethought, while the most substantive grievance London can cite – the Obama administration’s call for talks on the Falklands – is attributable to the latter’s perceived need to improve relations with Latin America and hardly constituted a sustained attack on British sovereignty over the islands. Such a trade-off of American interests is natural, and it is equally natural for the US to focus time and initiatives on those parts of the world where there is most work to be done. Yet these trade-offs have thus far proven peripheral and have not threatened the core of the Anglo-American relationship.

Understanding this allows us to see the Anglo-American alliance and Obama’s visit in the proper perspective. Obama entered office wanting to rebalance American foreign policy by reaching out to parts of the world which had turned against America in recent years, and by tackling crises where he found them. If Europe was marginalized in this process, this owes more to the continent’s stability and prosperity than anything else. After all, American foreign policy planners would be quite happy if the whole world looked like Europe. If Obama’s concerns elsewhere led to the continent feeling ignored, then the president’s recent trip is a welcome correction. Meanwhile, his visit to Britain is a reminder that the relationship between the two countries, forged in boardrooms and on battlefields, is as important to them both as ever. It is more than just a special relationship; it is Washington’s most solid relationship.


Andrew Gawthorpe is a Media Analyst and Historian of American foreign policy living in London. He is currently reading for a PhD in War Studies at King’s College, where his research focuses on the history of nation-building doctrine.


1 June 2011


Photo Credit: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak