international analysis and commentary

Obama and Britain: the expedient relationship


A year is a long time in international politics. In June 2010 David Cameron, then Britain’s new prime minister, nervously arrived in Washington, facing a special relationship in decline. In his presidential election campaign, Barack Obama had been disdainful of America’s historical staunch Atlanticism, and had not gelled personally with Cameron’s predecessor, Gordon Brown. Moreover, on the eve of Cameron’s visit, the US press was gripped by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill where a nominally British company, BP, was widely blamed, not least by the President himself. Though British aides clung to symbolic acts such as Cameron’s exclusive ride in Marine One, most returned to London last summer convinced that the Obama’s billing as America’s first “Pacific president” would leave little room for its old, “special” ally.

The enthusiasm that the President showed for this week’s state visit to Britain therefore came as a surprise. A formal banquet with the Queen, a historical address to both houses of parliament in Westminster, and an amiable barbeque and game of table tennis with the Prime Minister did not appear the actions of someone keen to downplay Anglo-American specialness. Indeed, Obama even added his own term to the ever-evolving alliance, deeming it “the essential relationship”. Why has the 44th president seemingly changed his tune? Is his newfound enthusiasm for Britain permanent or merely expedient for the current domestic and foreign challenges he faces?

Domestically, the President’s state visit serves to boost his re-election hopes in 2012. While the Republican Party scrabbles around to find a viable candidate in what has become an increasingly lightweight field, the Democrats’ expected nominee is greeted by admiring crowds and fawning heads of state, only serving to emphasize how much he towers over his rivals as America’s leading statesman. Barack Obama, it should not be forgotten, has proved one of the most successful political campaigners of his generation, and this current trip to Europe was as much an election tool as it was a diplomatic mission. Images of the President supping Guinness in Ireland, or solemnly placing a wreath outside the Warsaw Ghetto will be reproduced and distributed widely among America’s several million Irish and Polish voters come next November. Similarly, after 23 million American viewers were enthralled by the Royal Wedding last month, having the Obamas meet the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge was a clear attempt by the President’s PR team to catch a little royal glamour for the first couple.

Yet aside from the domestic benefits, Obama finds himself in need of greater international support than he did a year ago. The Arab Spring has sucked his administration back into the Middle East at the very time when this “realist” president had hoped to be disengaging from the conflicts initiated by his predecessor, George W. Bush. After a slow start, dithering over his response to the popular unrest in Tunisia and Egypt, and being led, (reluctantly, it appears) into the conflict in Libya by France and Britain, Obama has now declared himself fully behind the democratic aspirations of the Arab Spring. His Middle East policy speech at the State Department on May 19th committed US financial and political, though not always military, support to “change that advances self-determination and opportunity”. Yet these aspirations are not shared by some of the emerging international powers that Obama had been keen to improve ties with, notably Russia and China: these countries are generally against any democratic openness in the autocratic Arab world – perhaps fearing repercussions in their own repressed polities. It is therefore to Old Europe that the US will look for support on these matters, whether it is in development aid from European banks, or political support at the UN. In such instances, having a loyal ally like Britain on board appears more advantageous than it did a year ago.

Then there is the military strand to the Anglo-American relationship, which has been surprisingly strengthened in recent months. With Britain’s austere 2010 Strategic Defense Review introducing savage military cuts, many believed that with the notable exception of Afghanistan, the days of Anglo-American joint military operations were over. Moreover, both leaders appeared to broadly oppose interventionism – Cameron deplored the gung-ho adventures of Tony Blair, while Obama, though authorizing a “surge” in Afghanistan, focused on limiting America’s commitments abroad – not just withdrawing from Iraq but also implementing a timetable to wind down operations in Central Asia after the surge. That was until the Libya conflict transformed both into more active interventionists. With NATO now seemingly committed to regime change in Libya, those obituaries for Anglo-American military interventionism seem premature. There is a domestic political component to this too. Despite the poll boost Obama received for coolly ordering the operation that led to Osama bin Laden’s death, he still has placed much political capital in facilitating the overthrow of Muammar Gheddafi, Libya’s embattled leader. David Cameron, like French President Nicholas Sarkozy, has done the same, which inevitably will draw the three leaders together in common interest in a manner that was previously absent.

A final changing factor has been an apparent shift in Obama’s own political outlook, which has become more amenable to Cameron’s. In his early years in office, the US President’s answer to the world financial crisis was to keep spending, bringing with it praise from former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, despite their lack of personal chemistry. Cameron, on the other hand, came to office determined to slash Britain’s deficit, which put him at odds with Obama at their first official meeting in Washington last year. However, despite the criticism at home, Cameron’s coalition has been praised among the Washington political classes for its austere measures, and pressure has increased on the White House to follow its lead. Indeed, in April, after much wrangling with Republicans in Congress, Obama introduced significant spending cuts. With this issue no longer dividing them, Obama may come to see that Cameron’s socially liberal brand of conservatism may not prove as toxic as it first appeared. While there remains a gulf between the two in terms of social background – famously the President is the grandson of a British army cook, the Prime Minister a descendent of King William IV – the ideological differences between them appear to be narrowing.

Obama may actually feel no different about Britain and its perennial desire to have a special relationship with the US, than he did on coming to office, when he saw America’s future in the Pacific – not in its old allies in Europe. However, a few years into the job and he seems to have realized the value of an unflinching ally. Whether in his new commitment to Arab democracy, the success of military operations in Libya, or simply gaining photo opportunities with Royal newlyweds, the 44th president seems to be finding Britain remarkably expedient right now.