While Americans have been mostly businesslike in their dealings with Britain, the Cameron government has fallen back on the default British position: a desperate desire to feel “wanted” by Washington.
The mood music around U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Britain last week couldn't have been more artfully contrived, starting with the hype that he was only the third American President in 100 years to be honoured with a full state visit. It was presented as “proof” that reports of the imminent demise of the “historic” trans-Atlantic alliance were grossly exaggerated.
The visit's enduring image was of President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron rolling up their sleeves and serving burgers to the families of servicemen at a special Downing Street barbecue (of course, telecast live) while their wives, Michelle and Samantha, did the salads. And then the nation was treated to a supposedly impromptu game of table tennis (again telecast to millions of television viewers) with the Obama-Cameron XI taking on the students of a London comprehensive.
Throw into the mix pictures of the “First” ladies ensconced on the Camerons' £1400 new sofa in their customised minimalist kitchen; President Obama's “historic” address to a joint session of Parliament; and the pomp and ceremony at Buckingham Palace where the Obamas were welcomed personally by the Queen (they even got to stay in the luxury Belgian suite where, only days earlier, Prince William and Kate had spent their first night after their wedding) and it seemed that the “special relationship” was in super shape.
In such super shape, in fact, that President Obama and Mr. Cameron declared that it had now graduated into “an essential” relationship which, to one commentator, sounded more like a “loveless” marriage in which the couple is “forced to stay together.” A joint article they wrote for The Times ahead of the visit dripped with familiar platitudes and references to the “shared values” and “emotional” bonds between the two countries. A former diplomat dismissed it as a “lot of diplomatic guff.”
“This is the sort of thing that can be written about any two countries on such occasions,” he said.
In one of the most widely quoted extracts, the two leaders laboured to explain how the “special” relationship had moved one notch up to become an “essential” bond: “Yes, it [Anglo-U.S. relationship] is founded on a deep emotional connection, by sentiment and ties of people and culture. But the reason it thrives, the reason why this is such a natural partnership, is because it advances our common interests and shared values. It is a perfect alignment of what we both need and what we both believe. And the reason it remains strong is because it delivers time and again. Ours is not just a special relationship, it is an essential relationship — for us and for the world.”
The mood music had started to play even before the Obamas arrived in Britain. Their first stop on their week-long European tour was Ireland, a place of pilgrimage for most American Presidents because it plays well with voters of Irish descent back home. President Obama's visit took him to Moneygall, a tiny village of 300 people in the deep Irish countryside, where his great-great-great-maternal grandfather Falmouth Kearney was born and lived until the family migrated to New York in 1850 at the height of Irish potato famine. And, boy, what a “homecoming” it was.
“It is unbelievable, nothing short of a miracle,” was a typically breathless reaction amid extraordinary scenes of celebration concluding on an appropriately “high” note with a mandatory pint of Guinness beer. Ollie Hayes, owner of the pub, boasted that he had just pulled the “most important pint I will ever pour.”
The scramble for star-dust intensified as the President arrived in London where for the next three days he was treated like a rock-star. At Westminster where he addressed MPs — the first U.S. President to do so — he had to force his way through a crowd of awe-struck political leaders, diplomats, civil servants, army brass and the media.
“It was like teenagers surrounding a pop star, but with very less excuse: grown men and women, with a long record in public life behind them, abandoned all judgment and propriety. The face of John Bercow [the Commons Speaker] as Obama spoke was a picture: like many other members of the audience ... he appeared to be undergoing a profound, mystical experience,'' wrote The Telegraph columnist, Peter Oborne, describing the scenes as a “national embarrassment.”
The Observer's Andrew Rawnsley, a self-confessed Obama fan, found the sight of British politicians falling over each other to catch the President's eye “cringe-inducing.”
“When he'd received his standing ovation, it was mildly cringe-inducing to witness gnarled British politicians jostling like love-sick teenagers to grab the hand, exchange a few words or just touch the hem of the one,” he said.
Old-fashioned observers of state visits voiced concern over what they saw as the “Oprah-isation” of British politics in which the hard business of the state was replaced by a pursuit of celebrity endorsement. The fawning behaviour of Britain's political elite struck many as yet another demonstration of who really was the junior partner in this “special/essential” relationship.
Critics recalled how Gordon Brown, when he was Prime Minister, had to chase President Obama through the kitchens of the U.N. headquarters in New York in order to exchange a few words with him; and how, when he visited Washington, he was denied even a joint press conference with the President, routinely granted to visiting world leaders.
When the Tories came to power last year thanks to a little help from Liberal Democrats, they went out of their way to declare that the era of Britain's “subservient” relationship with America (epitomised by Tony Blair's unquestioning loyalty to the Bush administration) was over and that henceforth London would deal with America on more equal terms. Foreign Secretary William Hague envisaged a more mature relationship guided by Britain's national interests rather than sentiment. London was to stop harping on “special relationship” and — in the words of Mr. Cameron on being elected party leader — Britain would no longer be “America's unconditional associate in every endeavour.”
There were matching signals from Washington suggesting that the Obama administration was not particularly enamoured of Europe and Britain particularly was way down its laundry list. It was also reported that President Obama regarded Mr. Cameron as a bit of a light-weight after their first meeting when he was still aspiring to become Prime Minister.
While Americans have stuck to their plan and have been mostly businesslike in their dealings with Britain, the Cameron government, despite its initial bold promise to chart an “independent” path, has fallen back on the default British position: a desperate desire to feel “wanted” by Washington and to be seen to have its ears.
Mr. Cameron sought President Obama's endorsement of the British line on Libya, Afghanistan, the Palestinian peace process and his government's handling of the economic crisis. But even as Americans claimed that the two governments were in “perfect alignment,” President Obama made no attempt to hide the divisions. At their joint press conference, Mr. Cameron found himself repeatedly on the wrong side of President Obama who used his trademark measured-but-firm tone to make clear that Americans had their own priorities and were not going to ditch them simply to humour the Brits.
So, where does it leave the relationship after all that effort — the beer, the burgers, the pomp and ceremony at Buckingham Palace? The short answer, according to analysts, is: exactly where it was on May 24, the day President Obama arrived in Britain. The personal chemistry between the two leaders may have improved after all that forced bonhomie but, in hard policy terms, nothing has changed: Americans remain reluctant to be dragged deeper into the Libyan mess, cool to the idea of talking to the Taliban in Afghanistan, and still opposed to the Palestinian move to seek U.N. recognition for an independent state. Britain has exactly the opposite position on all these issues: it seeks greater American engagement in Libya, favours high-level talks with the Taliban, and backs the Palestinian plan.
One MP was reported as saying that the relationship remained one-sided despite public declarations of mutual admiration. “We are still their [Americans] first call, but we can't take it for granted,'' he said.
Analysts argued that the fuss over the visit itself gave the game away. “When the relationship between Britain and the United States really was the hinge on which the world was constructed ... nobody needed grand state ceremonial occasions to make the point. Now that it matters very much less so, we do,” wrote Mr Oborne.
The barbecue diplomacy was a nice try but sceptics doubt if it will be remembered in Washington as anything more than an interesting photo-op for Mr. Cameron.