English frustration, held by the USA on the football pitch, is nothing compared to the recent beating Britain has taken from its closest ally in the diplomatic ring. A string of spats have got many asking whether Obama’s America appreciates their loyalty – and whether the special relationship has entered a twilight era.
There was shock at the language the President deployed towards BP, over the oil company’s catastrophic spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The President’s habitual composure descended into the gruff threat to hold a ‘boot to the throat’ of what he now stresses is British Petroleum (no-one calls the company that) – language that Obama’s predecessor might have used against countries he deemed ‘evil’, but never a close friend.
Under fire at home, the President lashed out at what he depicts as a foreign corporate bogeyman – but not the two American firms with stakes in the Deepwater Horizon drilling. President Obama’s bluster is particularly difficult to fathom, since it hurts US interests – his comments helped wipe almost half the share price of a company which is 40% owned by American shareholders, and which he needs healthy to pay for the clean-up.
And it is not the only slight. Last week, the US supported a unanimous resolution by the Organisation of American States calling for Britain to negotiate the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. Secretary of State Clinton rubbed salt in the wound by offering to mediate. But, mediate what? Either sovereignty is decided on the basis of title or democratic principle. If title, the Falklands were neither discovered nor first settled by the Spanish. Britain has been in continuous control since 1833. On gaining independence, Argentina claimed the Falklands as its ‘inheritance’ – a claim roundly rejected by the US (as well as Britain). If title is up for grabs on that basis, perhaps Britain should offer to mediate the sovereignty of Texas? If, on the other hand, the 3,000 odd people living there get to decide their own fate, the Falklands would stay British by the kind of vote that would make Hugo Chavez blush. The US position has shifted since the Falklands war from impartiality – in reality, studious US neutrality belied Defence Secretary Weinberger’s blanket support for Britain – to tacit support for Argentine claims.
Meanwhile, as the British Government grapples with Britain’s ill-defined, unaffordable and unpopular military commitment in Afghanistan, US criticism of UK efforts in Helmand has come to light – even likening them to ‘Custer’s last stand’. Yet, Britain has not shied away from serious fighting, like many US allies. Measured in proportion to the size of their respective populations, more Brits than Americans have fallen on the battlefield. Britain may have earned respect, but how much loyalty is she getting? And, is the transatlantic relationship still ‘special’ – or the relic of a bygone era?
The glue binding Britain and America remains: a strong defence and intelligence relationship, relatively open economies, liberal democracy, similar common law systems, enormous cultural affinity and – despite poor impersonations on either side – language.
On our side, we need a reality check. The UK can still suffer delusions of Britannia – hankering for lost pre-eminence. Too often, America is viewed as a vehicle to recover past glory. Sometimes, too much is expected in return – it was both naïve and arrogant of Tony Blair to expect George Bush to impose peace on Israelis and Palestinians as the price for UK support in Iraq. So too, Britain needs to avoid sounding ungrateful. Outside military circles, our privileged military and intelligence relationship with the US is massively under-estimated. Equally, where Britain exacts uncomfortable favours – take US support for the UN referral of Darfur to the International Criminal Court in 2005 – it would be churlish to crow publicly.
But President Obama faces a reality check too. As he reaches out to former foes and neglected partners, one fact dominates the global landscape. Whether measured by GDP or military capacity, America’s relative power is ebbing, with the rise of Asia and Latin America. International relations are increasingly multipolar, but also fragmented. Multilateralism is fine in principle, but often stagnant in practice – whether it is the collapse of the Doha free trade talks, or the painfully slow process of agreeing effective sanctions on Iran.
Getting things done will increasingly demand coalitions of the willing, where there is no international consensus. And first on any US list of potential partners will be Britain. America will continue to rely not just on Britain’s shared outlook, but also its deft diplomatic corps, an ability to project military force and a rare ‘can do’ attitude. As Condeleezza Rice once said, there is no country America would rather be ‘down a foxhole with’ than Britain. But President Obama’s recent actions and tone prick a British sense that they are taken for granted.
David Cameron put his marker down three years ago, promising Britain’s relationship with the US would be ‘solid, not slavish’. Public opinion backs that approach. As the US gently slips from its historic moment of absolute hegemony, and the international challenges grow, Britain may find comfort in the opportunities and fluidity of a changing geopolitical kaleidoscope. She is relieved of the burdens of leadership, yet still an important player. She can discharge her responsibilities as a global ‘good citizen’, whilst giving greater priority to the British national interest.
With her historical links to the commonwealth, support for free trade, military clout and cultural draw, Britain needs a truly global foreign policy. She can stay firm friends of both America and Europe – but tied to the hip of neither. In short, Britain has choices. And President Obama is reminding them that, in the words of Lord Palmerston, they have ‘no eternal allies’, only eternal interests.