THERE is something faintly demeaning about these prime ministerial jaunts to Washington. No Briton with a residual flicker of patriotism can be entirely happy at our doglike desperation to be noticed, to receive a few kind words, have a stick thrown, be reassured by the Nice Man in the Big House that we are still more valuable than the other mutts in town.
We do not talk about it, even among ourselves. But the odour is unmistakable. We talk a lot of bravely condescending stuff about the poor quality of State Department thinking, or how the President followed London's advice. Sometimes it is even true. We obsessively analyse relations between the leaders, as if President Clinton were a touchy Renaissance prince whose whims dictated policy. We gasp with courtier-like pleasure at the news that John Major will sleep in the White House, just as we frown to hear that the new favourite, Helmut Kohl, enjoyed an intimate guzzlefest with Clinton in Georgetown.
How tacky, how embarrassing it all is - and how supremely irrelevant to what matters. Every piece of British media preening, eagerly assisted by some in Whitehall, is simply another reminder of the brittle nature of our national self-esteem.
This time there will be justified mutual congratulations about more important matters, particularly the achievement of the Gatt treaty, the Nato summit and then the Bosnian ultimatum that has kept that alliance alive. The Bosnian crisis has provoked real tensions in British-American relations, more so than has generally been recognised. The outcome so far, largely thanks to a British general, has been better than seemed likely. There should also be some serious talking about the position of Boris Yeltsin and the prospects for Russia, with Mr Major bringing fresh impressions to Washington. All that is infinitely more important than the flotsam of the Adams visit, or guff about 'personal chemistry'.
But even the main agenda is passing trade compared with the bigger shift in the Anglo-American relationship caused by the end of the Cold War - a shift whose implications are still being digested in London and Washington and which matters rather more than who is in the White House or No 10. Britain and America still share much. Their diplomatic conversation is frequent and frank. They remain close in the new areas of intelligence-gathering . . . our double-agents speak to their double-agents all the time. (Sorry - cheap shot.) So long as Nato holds together, the military relationship is quite close.
Unless a global Russian threat dramatically resurfaces, though, these links will gradually be overtaken by other and more traditional American priorities - trade, and a grading of foreign powers by their economic clout and their position in rival trading blocs, rather than by their history. In Washington, 40 years of British willingness to let the US run 75 military bases, from Suffolk to the Hebrides, will be recalled occasionally by ageing Anglophile congressmen, but will be quickly forgotten by tomorrow's policy-makers.
This poses hard questions for Britain. For decades, British governments have been using the close military and diplomatic relationship with America, expressed particularly through nuclear weaponry, to give this country extra status and influence. The nuclear and military alliance has helped to compensate for the disappearance of empire and economic failure. It has also given Britain an alternative identity, at arm's length from the new Europe.
However cordial relations may be between Britain and America in the future, it is hard to imagine these options will still be available. In the Cold War Eighties, Britain got Trident, her badge of Atlantic belonging. Is it likely that in the early years of the next millennium a British government will be able to buy the next generation of American nuclear weaponry? I suspect not. What then of Britain's place at the top table?
At least the disappearance of the easy options forces us to think again about the harder, more conventional ones. Why is Mr Kohl so important to President Clinton, dominating his telephone traffic to Europe? Why is it that Germany will obtain a place, sooner or later, among the permanent members of the Security Council? Why are the French, despite their independence and stroppiness during the Cold War, becoming steadily more important to the Americans?
These are not difficult questions. Germany is an economic power of huge significance, and both it and France act as the joint motor for European Union. In a world where most of the important business is done between trading blocs and through multinational alliances, France is at least as well-placed as Britain, and Germany more so.
Small wonder that Anglo-Saxon sentiment is no longer enough. I rather doubt that it ever was. The Cold War alliance was based on clear and unsentimental self-interest. Dean Acheson, one of the American founders of that alliance, wrote of the so-called special relationship (a term now banned in the Foreign Office): 'Of course a unique relation existed between Britain and America - our common language and history insured that. But unique did not mean affectionate. We had fought England as an enemy as often as we had fought by her side as an ally . . .' The old ally, he recalled, was France.
The British-American relationship will remain important, founded on trade, investment, shared interest and culture. But none of that can compensate Britain for generations of economic failure, or for the diplomatic weakness caused by her isolation from the main thrust of European politics. Brussels is now more important to Britain's long-term status in the world than Washington - and the Midlands is probably more important than either. To the extent that the 'special relationship' has disguised these obvious facts, it has been pernicious for this country.
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