The odds are high that when Americans hear the term "special relationship," they probably conjure images of a famous couple. Brad and Angelina. Franklin and Eleanor. John and Yoko. Liz and Dick. Bristol and Levi. Don and Betty Draper.
But I'm referring to the long institutional marriage between Britain and America, and the term first coined by Winston Churchill during his wartime alliance with FDR. The spouses keep changing - the latest duo, David Cameron and Barack Obama, met stateside for the first time on Tuesday - but one tradition remains inviolate. There is an ongoing obsession (especially among the Brits) about the vitality of the relationship, and the power balance between the partners.
This theme may sound like a snore (at least to those readers who'd crave a full piece on molehill mountaineer Andrew Breitbart), but I find the British-American subplot to be quite fascinating, if only because I was exposed to it, big time, during my three-year work stint in London back in the early '90s. The British inferiority complex was just as prevalent then as it is now. We probably couldn't care less that Obama this week gave Cameron a nice gift - a signed color lithograph by pop artist Ed Ruscha - but this was deemed happy news in the British press, which is still upset that Obama's gift to Cameron's predecessor was a collection of American movies on DVD.
The Brits resent their status as the lesser partner in the relationship, even though this has been the norm since 1940, back when Churchill first begged FDR to bend the U.S. neutrality rules and send enough arms and ships to help Britain fend off Hitler. (As Churchill pleaded in a letter, "help us with everything.") In fact, when David Cameron acknowledged his nation's status in an interview yesterday on British cable news - he said, "We are the junior partner; we were the junior partner in 1940 when we were fighting the Nazis" - a lot of his citizens went ballistic.
But there are careful calibrations in every marriage, and Cameron made it clear, during his Washington press conference with Obama, that he intended to stake out priorities for British sovereignty, even if those priorities were not in sync with those of his host. And Obama indulged his new partner, whose Conservative party was returned to power this spring, after a 13-year absence, basically by agreeing to paper over the disagreements that could grow more pronounced with the passage of time.
Whereas Obama - prodded by New York and New Jersey senators - wants to know whether BP had any role in Scotland's decision to free a terrorist who had helped plot the '88 Pan Am disaster (Scotland sent him home to Libya last year, at a time when Libya was weighing a BP off-shore drilling proposal), Cameron said there was "no evidence" that BP lobbied for the terrorist's release, and he opposes any new efforts to determine whether such evidence exists. Obama didn't press the issue, saying simply, "We welcome any additional information."
Cameron also felt compelled to defend BP in general terms, if only to mollify some of his brethren who believe that Obama has been unfairly beating up on the company. (John Redwood, a former Conservative minister, wrote recently on his blog: "Mr. Obama has declared war on BP, and sought to represent this global company as some kind of British destructive force in the USA. The president...seems to like having a foreign business whipping boy.") Cameron stated at the press conference, "It is in the interest of both our countries that (BP) becomes a strong and stable country."
Cameron did try to find common ground with Obama on the sensitive issue of Afghanistan, noting that "we should never forget our soldiers are serving together and dying together," but, given some of the remarks he has made elsewhere, it's clear that his patience is limited. Whereas, by any rational scenario, some American troops will still be stationed in Afghanistan for years to come, Cameron told the BBC this week, "We're not going to be there in five years' time."
War strategy issues aside, Cameron is concerned about the high financial costs of an open-ended British commitment. Indeed, his domestic strategy for dealing with Britain's sick economy is virtually the polar opposite of Obama's strategy in America. He is mapping a severe austerity program, rather than priming the pump. He wants to slash the British budget deficit by 50 percent in the next five years, and redirect power away from the London bureaucracy and back to the localities, in order to create what he calls "communities of oomph" (a phrase that wouldn't last five minutes in America, not after Jon Stewart finished with it).
Notably, there was virtually no mention, at the joint press conference, of the two leaders' fundamental philosophical differences - any relationship, "special" or otherwise, requires that certain things be left unsaid - and it will be interesting to see over time whether these differences will metastasize into tensions as the policies play out. Presumably, if Cameron succeeds with his austerity drive, Obama will no longer think of him as a "lightweight" who is all "sizzle" and no substance. That was Obama's assessment of candidate Cameron, as reported last summer in the British press. They forget nothing over there.
Nor do they forget that PM Tony Blair, as junior partner to George W. Bush, basically destroyed his political career when he allowed himself to be led by the leash into fighting Bush's folly in Iraq. Nor do they forget that PM John Major, as junior partner to Bill Clinton, had to watch helplessly as Clinton granted a visa to the IRA-affiliated political leader Gerry Adams. Major had to suffer this insult in silence - as a British official told me at the time, "We have no wish to stoke up a public row with Washington" - even as right-wing British commentators raged that Clinton was the worst president since Warren G. Harding, who at least "had the good grace to die early."
Still, this marriage is forever - as seems appropriate for two nations separated by a common language, yet bonded by history. Obama and Cameron will have their rocky moments, but, as British historian Peter Hennessy told me in London 16 years ago, "What people need to remember is that the special relationship has had more comebacks than Ethel Merman."
And if you don't catch his drift, google Ethel Merman.