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

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

Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own