Britain's Making the Special Relationship Less Relevant


The special relationship is losing its luster and it relevance. Contrary, to the UK press, this has little to do with the personal relationship between Obama and Brown or his electoral troubles, but is a byproduct of Iraq and the UK's growing estrangement with Europe.

On the face of it everything now seems fine. As Brown departed for Washington, there was a lot of British commentary about whether Obama and the U.S. even cared about the "special relationship." Personal relations between Obama and Brown were interpreted to be frosty and much was made over Obama's statement prior to Brown's arrival that called the U.S.-UK alliance a "special partnership," not a relationship. It was even said that Obama hated the British because they tortured his father.

But in their meeting at the White House, Obama made pains to stress the relationship was special and Gordon Brown's speech yesterday was so rah rah America it could have been given at CPAC. So everything is right in the relationship, right? Well not really, especially if your British. As the FT noted, Obama is not going to turn down an ally: "The Obama administration wants cordial productive relations with Britain, as with other countries."

But that does not make the UK particularly relevant to the U.S. right now. Yes over the last eight years the Brits have been with us side by side in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that in some ways is sort of the problem. By backing the Bush administration in Iraq the UK hasn't exactly enhanced their global clout and their military is now under great stress, which prevents greater assistance in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the UK's relationship with Europe - never cozy - has become increasingly estranged.

Blair claimed that the UK was a "pivotal" country in world affairs,  due to, as the Economist noted, "Britain's possession of efficient armed forces, together with its twin loyalty to America and the European mainland, give it a unique bridging role." In the run-up to the Iraq war, Blair leveraged these dual loyalties to America and Europe to make the UK an important international player that was essential to the U.S. The Economist had a great cartoon at the time showing Blair with a foot in both an American row boat and a European row boat that were headed in opposite directions. Bush offered the UK a choice, Europe or the U.S. Having chosen the Atlantic relationship, it was natural that there would be growing estrangement with Europe. But this has been compounded by American disinterest under Bush in rebuilding U.S.-European relations, as well as by the arrival of Brown, who is much more disinterested in Europe then Blair was.

The problem for the "special relationship" is that an increasingly eurosceptic Britain is much less relevant to the U.S. than a Britain that is firmly entrenched as an important player in the EU. So British debates over what's more important, the relationship with Europe or America offer a false choice, especially since the American president is no longer George Bush.  For the UK to maintain its traditional relevance to the U.S., it needs its place in Europe. Without that place in Europe, Britain will no doubt be an important and close ally - just like Canada, Australia, and Japan - but they bring a lot less influence to the table. 

With the possibility of David Cameron unseating Brown - ushering in one of the most eurosceptic governments the UK has had since it joined in 1973 - and overall anti-immigrant and anti-Europe sentiment growing in the UK, the Obama administration should make it clear that we want the UK to play a constructive role in Europe. U.S. pressure could at the very least serve as a check on potential British obstructionism on the Lisbon Treaty, as well as on other efforts to de-link the UK from Europe.

It's high time we used the special relationship to attempt to influence British behavior in Europe, just as they use it to influence our behavior globally.