On his first visit to Washington as Prime Minister, David Cameron has tried to redefine Britain’s relationship with the United States. For decades it has been dubbed a 'special relationship', but more, perhaps, by the British than the Americans. As a result, we on this side of the Atlantic, he says, have tended to obsess too much about the continuing health of this relationship. We should obsess less and be confident that the ties are strong.
Part of the motivation for talking in these terms lay in short-term political management. Mr Cameron seems to have wanted to forestall the media's picking over of tiny details of his meeting with the American president such as happened when Gordon Brown used to visit Washington. Had the British been snubbed by their prime minister being given a shorter meeting in the White House than other world leaders? Had the exchange of presents implied some slight or insult?
Mr Cameron need not have worried on this score. The meeting was reported to have gone very well, its length was more than the minimally courteous and the presents found favour all round. But beyond these trivia, the issue that the Prime Minister addressed does raise big questions.
Mr Cameron outlined his concerns in an article for the Wall Street Journal before his visit. He wrote that he had "never understood the British anxiety about whether the special relationship will survive. The US-UK relationship is strong because it delivers for both of us. The alliance is not sustained by historical ties or blind loyalty. This is a partnership of choice that serves our national interests today."
Mr Cameron went on to say that both countries needed independently to forge strong relationships with other countries. (He's off to India next week to do just that.) And the two allies would disagree from time to time. In short, he said, Britain’s relationship with America should be "solid not slavish". But just how independent of the United States can Britain be?
The Prime Minister made the obvious point that has nonetheless often been difficult to admit: that Britain is the junior partner in the relationship. Junior partners will always fret about just how independent they are and this is why defining the relationship has been so problematic in the hundred years since Britain moved from being the senior to the junior partner.
Back in the 1960s, the then British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, suggested that Britain had become Greece to America’s Rome, a remark regarded as not just patronising but laughable by some in the United States – ancient Greece, after all, had never had to be rescued by Rome in two world wars.
It was not until Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan came on the scene that the relationship between the two countries seemed to shed its underlying awkwardness. That was because the two leaders saw the world almost identically, especially in regard to economics and the Soviet threat, and joined forces accordingly. It didn’t matter that the United States was so obviously the senior partner because there was little difference about what the partnership itself wanted to achieve.
But the old problem reappeared when Tony Blair and George Bush took control of their two countries. Or at least that is how many commentators would now see things. For they would argue that it is becoming increasingly clear that the British prime minister’s decision to back the Americans over the invasion of Iraq can be explained now only in terms of a British unwillingness to take a stance independently of the Americans.
Much of the evidence to the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war, including this week from the former head of MI5, Lady Manningham-Buller, is regarded by many people as exposing yet more convincingly the unsustainability of the arguments for going to war made at the time by Tony Blair’s government. This leaves the suspicion that Mr Blair went to war because he came to the conclusion that Britain simply could not afford to alienate the United States by going its own way on Iraq. In other words, the junior partner must just do what it’s told.
Of course the government at the time denied this, as did the American government which is on record as having offered Britain, even very late in the day, the option of not participating militarily in the invasion of Iraq. Nonetheless, some would argue that these denials don’t alter the realities and that the British government did feel it had no choice but to follow the Americans into war. The question is whether David Cameron’s government will see its role as junior partner any differently.
An obvious early test of this will be Afghanistan. The Prime Minister was pretty emphatic in Washington this week that British combat troops would be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014. At the moment the Americans share such a timetable. But most experts think that the western allies are losing the war in the country and that, before 2014, a decision will have to be taken whether to pull out, essentially defeated, or to press on for an even longer haul. That decision will be the Americans’ to take. But if President Obama takes the second option, will Mr Cameron, if he takes a different view, feel free to withdraw British troops anyway or, as the junior partner, will he feel Britain needs to hang on in there too?
Those who believe Britain’s relationship with America tends more towards the 'slavish' than the 'solid' cite Trident as another piece of evidence. Britain’s so-called 'independent' nuclear deterrent is anything but independent, they say, because Britain buys the missiles from the United States which imposes rigorous controls on our ability to use them. The new government seems determined to maintain Britain’s nuclear capacity after Trident and this, it’s said, will further compromise Britain’s independence of America.
Is there, then, any alternative to a relationship with the United States which many would see as not allowing us anything like as much independence as we would want or claim? Although Britain remains one of the top half dozen biggest economies in the world and with a history that has given it a place at all the top tables, such as the UN Security Council, the fact remains that it is a country of only sixty million people in a world heading for a population of nine billion. In such a world we need strong alliances, it’s said.
For many the obvious alternative to our current relationship with the US lies in Europe. But even enthusiasts for European integration recognise that the project has stalled and in any case Britain has always been far from enthused by the idea. Mr Cameron has said his government will block any attempts to get Britain to move further along the path of European integration.
The conclusion many will draw is that being junior partner to the Americans is the only game in town. The question they will want to ask is whether, therefore, Mr Cameron can avoid being 'slavish'.
What’s your view? Do you think Mr Cameron was right to say we obsess too much about the health of Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with the United States? Do you think that relationship serves our national interest or not? Do you think we can be the junior partner and still retain appreciable measures of independence? Do you think Tony Blair sent Britain into war in Iraq because, ultimately, he felt Britain needed to back the Americans, or for other reasons? Do you think David Cameron would be ready to take an independent line on Afghanistan from the Americans if the circumstances arose? Do you think there are any viable alternatives to our relationship with the United States or are you happy for things to carry on as they are?