Wednesday, 25 May 2011

What's a Special Relationship anyway?

Barack Obama addresses the Houses of Parliament today in Westminster Hall. The chatter on the news programmes is once again all about the ‘special relationship’. Or has that now become the ‘essential relationship’?

This has always struck me as something of a British obsession and of rather less concern to the Americans.

The United States is a world power and has many important international relationships.
  • China, as the new world power. 
  • Russia, although waning, is still a world power (just) 
  • Countries with enormous potential and resources like India and Brazil 
As a world power the United States needs to be at the fulcrum of geo politics which means:
  • The growth and emergence of the east
  • The dangerous instability and oil wealth of the middle east
Post cold-war Europe is less important, less at the centre of things and the balance of economic power is moving east. Also, the current American administration is supportive of supra-international bodies like the EU. Britain becomes important as part of Europe, allies but not the centre of America’s world.

In this regard the United Kingdom is just an important regional power in Europe and is not at the centre of it.

Yes, we have interests and a degree of influence around the world. However, I am not convinced we are much loved, nor, are we much hated either.

So why, post cold war, would the United States have a special relationship with the United Kingdom? We can only be one of several special relationships.

Then there is the personal element.

The UK – US special relationship has only really been there when a Prime Minister and President have been close. Think of Churchill and Roosevelt, think of Thatcher and Reagan, think of Blair and Bush (or Blair and Clinton for that matter). I’m not sure how special it was following the Bretton Woods Agreement and during the days of post war reconstruction!

Barrack Obama was brought up in Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean. He spent some time in Indonesia. His grandfather was imprisoned by the British in Kenya during the Mau Mau rebellion. He is not close to Britain.

He is an African American in a country where more and more of her people speak Spanish. Where more and more of it looks East to the Tiger economies and the People’s Republic of China. (actually they probably look West from where they sit on the globe). If his eyes are fixed anywhere else they are probably fixed on the tinder-box of the Middle East and the Islamic world.

The United Kingdom is a constant ally. Right, left or centre we are strongly of the same mindset. Our constitutional and philosophical influence on the United States is huge. Our music, film and popular culture still has some influence. We share the same language (just about).

We remain an important ally of the United States.

So let us not get too worked up about Obama removing Churchill’s bust from the oval office or being too nice to the French, he remains a friend.

Don’t forget that America is not necessarily the only show in town for us. China and the East are important to our companies and businesses too. In fact, I understand that along with many European companies the UK is in better nick than many parts of the American economy because our companies are investing in the east and can benefit from globalisation.

India has a growing influence and we have plenty of contacts there.

Europe is the corner of the globe we occupy and where most of our trade is done.

And, sometimes, America gets it wrong. Think of:
  • Iraq
  • Kyoto
  • Soft peddling with Argentina
We will not always want to follow America’s lead!

The 20th century was the American century, but in the 21st her power is just beginning to decline. The United States will remain the predominant world power in my lifetime but this will not always be so.

She is an important ally, a close ally and that goes very, very deep. This is not going to change. But the United States of America is not a special ally and we shouldn’t be hung up about that.

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