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Leading article: An alliance, but not such a special relationship

Britain is not used to seeing Mr Cameron in the guise of deferential pupil

Pageantry is something the Americans do as well (almost as well, grudging detractors might say) as the British. And the White House certainly pulled out all the stops for the Prime Minister and his wife yesterday in welcoming them to Washington for a state visit by any other name. Even the weather smiled, as it did last year for the Obamas' visit to Britain in the generally less fickle month of May.

But David Cameron should not deceive himself – nor should the British public deceive itself – that because Mr Cameron can afford a decent suit, carries himself well and can hold his own at a microphone in such a formal setting, that this alliance, as both leaders repeatedly chose to refer to it yesterday, is between equals. It is not. And nowhere was the disparity more embarrassingly obvious than in the pictures from the college basketball game at Dayton, Ohio, the previous evening.

Here, in this distinctly informal, very American, setting, Mr Cameron came across very much as the junior, and uncharacteristically nervous, partner. Britain is not used to seeing its Prime Minister, especially this Prime Minister, in the guise of self-conscious pupil, deferring to a more confident and fluent mentor. But this is how he appeared, and while it was not a good look for our national self-esteem, it was probably a more accurate reflection of the power imbalance.

Such pictures could, of course, have been avoided – had the invitation to travel in Air Force One and spend five hours a deux with the US President, for instance, not been so flattering. Or if someone had pointed out the perils of setting off for the mid-West immediately after arriving on a subsonic transatlantic flight. And Mr Cameron himself – a most English Prime Minister – made the classic mistake of trying to ape American style. Alas, the Prime Minister appears to have been as susceptible as his predecessors to the magnetism of power and to the idea – peddled by sections of the political and media elite – that British and US leaders should also be friends. But friendship implies liking and loyalty that are not obligatory in state-to-state relations, and may even jeopardise respect, which is.

Seen from the US perspective, the British Prime Minister was just another leader of a medium-sized country briefly visiting town. Britain and its future prime ministers will have to get used to this. Not least because the military alliance, so central to the Cameron-Obama conversations this week, is winding down.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where US and British troops have fought shoulder to shoulder, but hardly in equal numbers, allowed Mr Obama and Mr Cameron yesterday to talk up the "essential" and "indispensable" alliance as evidence of a relationship that was – in Mr Obama's words – "the strongest it's ever been". But it is Libya, where the US took a back seat to Britain and France, while supplying crucial support, that could well be the shape of military relations in the future, as the US disengages from Europe and turns its focus on Asia.

And without the military aspect, what really remains of the so-called "special relationship"? What happens in Afghanistan will be telling. Hints at a slightly earlier withdrawal of US and British combat troops than initially envisaged – a change that may be endorsed at the Nato summit in Chicago in May – would be applauded by war-weary publics in both countries. But the end of that engagement, whenever it comes, is also likely to spell the end of an increasingly unequal military relationship and underline a growing truth: that a German Chancellor or a Chinese President will be received more seriously, and accorded more attention, in Washington than this, or any future, British Prime Minister.