"I need a little space."
When lovers utter these words, it's usually a bad sign for the relationship. They feel suffocated. They're reexamining their commitment. They're checking out other options. But they don't have the courage to make a clean break.
Britain is the latest country to question its "special relationship" with the United States. The recent elections have brought in the new team of David Cameron (Conservative Party) and Nicholas Clegg (Liberal Democrats). Both leaders have complained of how unquestioningly close Britain became to the United States during the Bush-Blair and then Brown-Obama years. The new British Foreign Minister Walter Hogue has called for trans-Atlantic relations to be "solid but not slavish."
Meanwhile, a couple months ago, a British parliamentary committee recommended that the very phrase "special relationship" be retired altogether. "The UK needs to be less deferential and more willing to say no to the United States on those issues where the two countries' interests and values diverge," the committee's report said.
Sounds to me like the Brits are very clearly saying: This whole shacking up thing isn't working out. Let's just be friends. Do you mind spending the night on the sofa?
The British aren't the only ones trying to figure out how to say no. Our closest ally in Asia, Japan, has made similar noises. Back in September, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama called for greater equality in relations with the United States. "I also feel that as a result of the failure of the Iraq war and the financial crisis, the era of U.S.-led globalism is coming to an end and that we are moving toward an era of multipolarity," he wrote in The New York Times. Japan has a wandering eye. Lately China has been sending a lot of roses and chocolate, and the wooing has done much to lower Japan's resistance.
The problem, however, is that the United States doesn't want to be just friends with Japan. It doesn't want to sleep on the sofa or hand over the front door key to China. Consequently, Washington has demanded signs of affection. "You signed an agreement in 2006 about the military base relocation in Okinawa," Washington is now saying to Tokyo, "and we expect you to live up to that agreement." It's practically an ultimatum, which is what lovers do when they're worried about fidelity.
Another vital ally that has put critical distance between itself and Washington is Turkey. Back in 2003, Ankara refused to open up a second front in the Iraq War. Turkey has also worked hard to arrange a deal on Iran's nuclear program -- most recently winning agreement from Tehran to ship 1,200 kilos of uranium to Turkey in exchange for higher-enriched fuel for a medical reactor -- while Washington has been more focused on sanctions and other punitive actions. Turkey hasn't turned its back on the United States. Its ambassador has even returned to Washington after his recent decampment over the Armenian genocide resolution. But Ankara has been having second thoughts for some time about being too close to the United States. It's playing the field, establishing closer relations with Syria and Russia, and even flirting with some former adversaries like Greece and Armenia.
This sudden standoffishness among our close allies comes at a strange time: after U.S. voters rejected the alpha-male politics of the Bush team and welcomed Mr. Sensitive into the White House. Global perceptions of the United States have risen sharply over the last two years. In a survey of 28 countries, the BBC World Service and the Project on International Policy Attitudes found that public opinion has rebounded from a low point in 2007, when only 28 percent of those surveyed believed that U.S. influence in the world was positive, to 40 percent in this year's poll. President Obama pledged to clean up his act, check out Warmongers Anonymous, and sweet-talk his way into the good graces of the international community. Just give me another chance, he has said to the world. And the world, at the level of public opinion at least, seems to have responded.
So, where's the love from the leadership of our closest allies? The ambivalence of the ruling parties in the United Kingdom, Japan, and Turkey can be explained in several ways. First, there's the inevitable pendulum effect, as politicians react to public perceptions of poodle-like behavior toward Washington by offering a more sober alternative. Second, a certain wariness has no doubt crept into the minds of foreign leaders as they see Obama employ the same strong-arm tactics as Bush -- toward Europe over Afghanistan, toward Japan over Okinawa, toward Turkey over Iran. Third, the United States has lost a considerable amount of relative power as other countries have surged economically (China has become the leading trade partner for East Asian countries, Russia is now Turkey's major trade partner).
Or perhaps the problem is more endemic. Niall Ferguson, the British economic historian, recently wrote about the fragility of U.S. global power. In The Los Angeles Times, Ferguson uses the science of complexity to argue that the U.S. empire is a house of cards that could topple rather quickly in a strong breeze.
"One day, a seemingly random piece of bad news -- perhaps a negative report by a rating agency -- will make the headlines during an otherwise quiet news cycle," he writes. "Suddenly, it will be not just a few policy wonks who worry about the sustainability of U.S. fiscal policy but the public at large, not to mention investors abroad. It is this shift that is crucial: A complex adaptive system is in big trouble when its component parts lose faith in its viability."
As an economic historian, Ferguson is understandably focused on fiscal matters. But his point about the sudden loss of faith can apply to other realms, such as the political relationships between Washington and its allies. London, Tokyo, and Ankara are losing faith, and others might follow. But the what of this argument is perhaps less important than the who. Ferguson was once a cheerleader for empire -- and the Bush-led U.S. empire in particular. His ardor has cooled. He's hedging his bets. He's really writing about his own loss of faith.
When red-meat intellectuals like Niall Ferguson begin to say, "I need a little space," Washington had best start putting its affairs in order. Several of our allies are realizing that they've been in an abusive relationship. Washington has been jealous, bossy, and violent: the classic warning signs. The new team has promised to go into therapy, but there continue to be relapses around surges and drones and arm-twisting.
As any good therapist will tell you, sometimes you just have to walk away.