Rupert Cornwell: So much for the special relationship

The disagreements and personal slights seem to have become more common lately
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The Independent Online

On past form, a familar ritual should be playing out here in a few weeks' time. Assuming there is no hung parliament, a newly elected British prime minister will travel to Washington to meet the US President. Someone in the travelling media will ask about the state of the 'special relationship' between the two countries. The American side will look bemused, while the smile on the face of the British ambassador will tighten to a rictus.

But at last comes hope that events will not follow this embarrassing script. To anyone living in the US, the lopsidedness of the 'special relationship' has long been glaring. But it has taken the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee to spell it out in London. Not only was the term virtually meaningless, the cross-party panel said in its recent report; the very use of it "raises unrealistic expectations about the benefits the relationship can deliver to the UK." Never was a truer word spoken.

Let us examine where a British Prime Minister ranks among foreign visitors to the White House. Very high indeed, is the obvious answer, when he happened to be the leader of America's most substantial ally in an unpopular war. But in normal times the list would look something like this.

Undisputed number one would be Chinese president, representing the other half of the world's most important bilateral relationship. Next probably comes the leader of Russia, by dint of Moscow's ability to obstruct, and its continuing status as the one country that has the weapons to blow the US off the face of the earth. Next, for varying reasons, is a group containing the Israeli Prime Minister, the Indian Prime Minister and the President of Pakistan. Britain is somewhere in the following pack, along with Germany, France, Japan.

That's not to say the US and the UK aren't exceptionally close. They have an enormous familiarity with each other. The military, intelligence-sharing links, as well as financial and cultural ties, underpinned by a common language, are colossal. Naturally from time to time they disagree, but on most global issues the instincts of the two countries are usually the same. Arguably, they still come closer than any to disproving Lord Palmerston's dictum about nations not having permanent friends or allies, only permanent interests.

The problem is, this matters much more to us than to the Americans. The imbalance is everywhere. Each British election becomes more American; there is precious little sign of British political habits crossing the Atlantic in the other direction. It is reflected in the media coverage too. Every wrinkle in US politics is covered in Britain. This all-consuming interest, however, is not reciprocated. Last week's announcement that our general election would take place on May 6 was only the lead brief in the next day's Washington Post.

The arrival of the Obama administration has if anything accelerated the trend. This president, whose grandfather was imprisoned by the British during Kenya's struggle for independence, is without the sentimental reflexes towards Britain of his white, Anglo predecessors.

Lately, the disagreements seem to have become more common: among them US anger over Britain's return of the convicted Lockerbie bomber to Libya, and over the release of intelligence material about Binyam Mohamed, the former Guantanamo Bay detainee, as well as British annoyance at the US Secretary of State's suggestion that we and Argentina might actually hold talks over the future of the Falklands.

There were the perceived personal slights too: the removal of Winston Churchill's bust from the Oval Office, and Gordon Brown's quest for a bilateral meeting with Obama last year that yielded that strange 'walk-and-talk' summit in the UN kitchens. But we're not the only ones feeling aggrieved.

This administration is not only less Britain-centric, but less Euro-centric as well. With the Cold War over, the US is no longer a European power through its leadership of Nato. Born in Hawaii, part-raised in Indonesia, Obama is America's first Pacific-orientated president. He made his priorities crystal clear when he chose to pass on next month's EU-US summit, much upsetting Spain, the putative host, in the process.

America too is itself becoming less 'European.' Its variety and its powers of assimilation are as strong as ever, but now the newcomers are increasingly Asians, Muslims and of course Hispanics. In this ever more crowded canvas, Britain stands out less, the offshore island at the north western corner of Europe, where geography placed it. The eternal problem of course, is that the offshore island doesn't always see things that way.

There's a tendency to treat Britain's relations with Europe and the US as what the American's call a zero-sum game – that the closer Britain moves towards Europe, the weaker will be its ties with America, and vice versa. In fact, the opposite is true.

Nothing would make the US happier than for Britain to play its full part in Europe. The British vision of Europe, open and non-protectionist, is the American vision too. To that extent, if relations between the UK and Europe are weakened, then so too are relations between the UK and the US.

Thus the potential dilemma facing David Cameron's Conservatives, sour on the 'special relationship' and out of step with an ever more hardline Republican party, yet if anything even sourer on Europe. Thus too, the tragedy of Tony Blair. Not only was he an Atlanticist, he was also the most Europhile prime minister since Edward Heath. Alas, Blair's dazzlement at American power, and the absolute priority he placed on the relationship with the US, led him inexorably into Iraq war.

But the disaster may prove to be a blessing. Iraq was a brutal lesson in political realities. It revealed how little influence Britain ultimately exerted on its vastly more powerful partner, for all the loyalty it displayed. The most revealing moment came as Blair was facing rebellion in Labour ranks, just before the invasion. It didn't matter if Britain pulled out, Donald Rumsfeld declared publicly, the US could (and would) go ahead on its own.

In terms of bluntness, tactlessness and arrogance, the former Secretary of Defence is in a class of his own. But that day in March 2003, he was speaking the truth. And the Commons Foreign Affairs' Committee report is a sign that on the other side of the Atlantic, that truth has at last been recognised as well.

r.cornwell@independent.co.uk

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