international analysis and commentary

BP and the Special Relationship: cooler but not on ice


The G8/G20 summit in Canada in late June marked the first face to face meeting between Barack Obama and new British Prime Minister David Cameron at a time when the ‘Special Relationship’ is looking increasingly strained. Many hoped that these meetings might sooth the tensions that have appeared between the allies in recent months, most notably President Obama’s vocal criticism of ‘British’ Petroleum following the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Stories of amiable encounters between the two leaders in Canada, whether sharing a beer or Obama’s inviting Cameron to be the first foreign leader to fly alongside him on his helicopter, Marine One, were therefore leapt on by the British as a sign of business as usual. “It shows the strength of the special relationship between our two countries,” remarked one Number Ten aide, “it’s really taken off now.” However, such close encounters merely paper over cracks in a relationship which has looked increasingly less special under Barack Obama than his predecessors.

Even before reaching office the 44th President indicated a departure from the Anglophilia of past leaders. In his books Barack Obama expressed disdain for British imperialism in Kenya in Dreams From My Father, and lamented George W. Bush’s mock-multilateralism as ‘we round up the United Kingdom and Togo and then do what we please’ in The Audacity of Hope. Since Obama took office in 2009, London’s policy makers have watched nervously for indications that an anti-British tone would be adopted. The immediate removal of a bust of Winston Churchill that had sat in Bush’s Oval Office was seen as a bad sign, as was the underwhelming gift of 25 DVDs to then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown on his first visit to Obama’s White House. This cold first meeting signaled that Brown and Obama were not to be as close as Bush and Blair: though the President agreed with the Prime Minister ideologically on the need for a government-funded stimulus to support the global economic recovery, the Hawaiian privately found the Scot unpredictable and turbulent. With no personal amiability to fall back on, and a President who saw America’s future priorities in the Pacific Rim rather than Old Europe, the decline of the special relationship had an air of inevitability.

Any hopes that new Prime Minister David Cameron might be able to reset transatlantic relations on assuming office in May seemed to be stillborn as the BP crisis hit. The US President quite publicly placed the blame for the ecological disaster, and the bill for cleaning it up, at the feet of the oil company – which he mistakenly referred to as ‘British Petroleum’, despite an official name change over a decade ago. Now known as simply ‘BP’ to reflect the corporation’s now-global character, half of the board members are in fact American. This prompted a perception in Britain that Obama was quite shamefully playing the nationalist card to deflect criticism of his own delayed reaction to the crisis and to cut off domestic right-wingers like Sarah Palin who blamed ‘foreign’ companies for the disaster. Britain’s own right-wing press, which had gushed over Obama on his election in 2008, retaliated itself. The centrality of BP to Britain’s economy was highlighted by tabloids and op-eds, patriotically rallying around the struggling company with scathing attacks on the President. One Daily Mail blogger even suggested Obama’s anti-British attitude revealed him to be America’s first ‘Third world President’.

David Cameron thus comes into office with bridges to build with Washington. As well as dealing with a President who has less enthusiasm for Britain, he must balance an increasingly anti-American public. As well as the right-wing support for BP, Cameron is wary of the ‘poodle’ label attached to Tony Blair, and the growing disillusionment with the Afghanistan conflict which has now cost over 300 British deaths in what many see as another ‘American War’. Even institutionally the transatlantic alliance has come under fire, with a Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee recently recommending that the very term ‘special relationship’ should be avoided as it is ‘potentially misleading’.

Yet Cameron also knows that now is not the time to take a stand against Washington, as illustrated by his attempts to diffuse tension through a well-timed phone call to Obama during the BP crisis and friendly set-pieces at the G8. Britain is incredibly weak at the moment following the economic crisis and Cameron’s attention seems focused on executing an austerity budget at home rather than grandstanding abroad. One victim of this austerity plan is likely to be Britain’s defense budget which will further limit London’s ability to project influence internationally and make it even more reliant on maintaining positive diplomatic relations rather than military might.  Furthermore, as head of an uneasy coalition of Atlanticist Conservatives and Europhile Liberal Democrats, the Prime Minister is more likely to adopt a positive approach to all of Britain’s allies rather than being deliberately antagonistic. Indeed, this odd political coupling combined with Britain’s weakness and inability to project power alone might lead to Cameron being the unlikely deliverer of Tony Blair’s dream of balancing Europe and America.

At the same time, despite an ideological difference between Obama and Cameron on whether to maintain or cut government spending to alleviate the economic crisis, the bonhomie seen at the G8/G20 suggests that the President is keen to ensure their personal relations don’t get off to the same cold start as under Brown. Crucially, Obama does not enjoy the same public or international support that he did during that first rebuff of Britain’s last Prime Minister and the last year has seen him suffer repeated failure abroad and very limited success at home. With mid-term elections in November likely to reduce his Democratic party’s majorities in both houses, and with it his ability to pass through domestic legislation, a successful foreign policy might prove more and more important as he seeks re-election in 2012. Maintaining Britain’s support in Afghanistan, at a time when Cameron is facing popular and financial pressure to bring the troops home, is therefore becoming increasingly important to the Obama administration, particularly as the campaign has received increased scrutiny in the wake of the McChrystal debacle. President Obama thus recognizes as well that now is not the time to make Britain feel ‘un-special’.

Irrespective of the BP crisis, Obama’s view of the special relationship is therefore likely to continue under Cameron as it did under Brown: cooler but not on ice. Whilst Obama’s lack of Anglophilia and detachment from Old Europe will ensure that relations won’t return to the highs of the Blair-Bush years, his growing international and domestic concerns and need for support in Afghanistan will ensure that the odd ‘special’ gesture will still be sporadically on offer. On the other side of the Atlantic, despite calls from Britain’s right-wing press to make a stand over BP, Cameron recognizes he is in no position to grandstand and will continue to take whatever affection is offered from Washington whilst focusing his efforts on the economy. This will no doubt be seen on July 20th when Cameron makes his first visit to the White House. Whilst Obama will likely think of something more spectacular than a box of DVDs to welcome his guest, this still won’t paper over the reality that under this President, the most special treatment a British Prime Minister can expect is a free helicopter ride.