Stryker McGuire: Why put yourself through all this?

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So let's go down the "special relationship" checklist.

Warm reception for Gordon Brown's speech to a joint session of Congress? Check. (Brown was "only" the fifth British Prime Minister to be given the opportunity to make such a speech. As best as I can determine, leaders from "only" 48 countries have addressed Congress more than 100 times, including, not that long ago, the French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Massive coverage in the British media? Check. (Second only to the terrorist ambush of the Sri Lanka cricket team in Pakistan.)

Sparse coverage in the US media? Er, check. That was yesterday.

Tuesday? Warm reception for Gordon Brown at the White House? Check. (Later in the day a Boy Scouts of America delegation got a warm reception, too.)

First European leader to meet the new President in person? Check. (The Japanese Prime Minister, Taro Aso, actually got there first. And of course Obama's "very good friend" Tony Blair nabbed an encounter with the President a month ago.)

Why do British prime ministers do this to themselves? Why this slavish obeisance to a relationship that is almost always lopsided, even when the pleading is as graceful and eloquent as Mr Brown's was? There is a rationale, of course, for all of this. Ever since Churchill coined the phrase, Britain has derived its status as a world power directly, and increasingly, from its special relationship with the United States.

As the sun set on the British Empire, the importance of the relationship grew, at least from Britain's vantage point. If Harold MacMillan imagined Britain as Athens to America's Rome, Blair similarly believed that shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity with America was Britain's ticket to real power status in the new century. As Blair has said to me, he will acknowledge that the closeness of the alliance is not always popular, but he will never waver from his belief that it is the right place for Britain to be.

What Brown really thought about going to war in Iraq we don't know (remarkably) but he's convinced that the trusty special relationship model can be put to good use when applied to the global financial meltdown. Perhaps. Political and historical arguments about the special relationship have their place. I may, as a dual United States/United Kingdom citizen, be slightly embarrassed by the political investment a Blair or a Brown makes in the relative state of his relationship with the President of the day. But let's put that aside as well.

My real concern with the ritual debate that greets any meeting of British and American leaders is that it reflects a deeper unease on the part of Britons about their identity – an ultimately needless fretting, I think, about who they are and what their place in the world is. Early in his premiership, Blair spoke of "post-empire malaise" and of Britain's need to become "as confident of its future as it once was of its past". He believed that the alliance was one way of getting there. While there's something to that, I think it's unhealthy for Britain as a country and as a people to continually seek to shape its identity through the prism of the US.

Too often, just as British prime ministers seek approbation from Washington, popular culture in the UK judges itself against the US. Witness the annual tally of how many Brits won at the Oscars, the Grammys, the Emmys. It's cringe-making; and when the count goes "against" Britain it's downright painful to contemplate the weeping and gnashing of teeth. Many British intellectuals define themselves in the opposite way, by looking down on American culture.

For a prime minister encountering rough seas at home, the special relationship often provides safe harbour. We saw that with Blair after he and Bush launched the war in Iraq. Sinking deeper and deeper into trouble at home during the summer of 2003, he encountered this headline in The New York Times around the time he gave his address to a joint session of Congress: "In Blair We Trust," echoing the US motto, "In God We Trust." The accolades for Brown were less divine, but still ego-boosting. If British prime ministers find solace in the comfort blanket of the special relationship, so be it. But Britain needn't always define itself in those same terms.

Stryker McGuire is a London-based contributing editor at Newsweek

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