The Take

U.S., U.K. alliance questioned following British election

A power-sharing deal between Cameron and Nicholas Clegg of the Liberal Democrats ended 13 years of Labor Party rule and resulted in Britain's first coalition government since the 1940s.
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 12, 2010; 9:15 AM

LONDON -- In his telephone call to new British Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday night, President Obama underscored his commitment to the "special relationship" between the two countries.

That was a diplomatic necessity given the long alliance between the United States and the United Kingdom, but the reality might be that the concept has outlived its usefulness.

The notion of a special relationship is both fact and fiction. The term dates to Winston Churchill, in the aftermath of World War II. Ever since, British leaders have long believed there is no more important relationship than that between the United States and the United Kingdom. U.S. presidents, too, have developed close personal relationships with their British counterparts.

But on this side of the Atlantic in particular, there is a growing belief that with Cameron as prime minister Britain must find its own way in the world -- not exactly apart from the United States, but not always joined at the hip in what many complained became a junior partnership during the past decade.

The complaint was especially acute at the height of the Iraq war, when then-prime minister Tony Blair's alliance with George W. Bush, in support of a conflict that was even more unpopular in Britain than in the United States, was widely derided as "poodleism."

Neither U.S. nor British officials believe that Cameron's Conservative Party, which formed a governing coalition with the Liberal Democrats, will make significant foreign policy changes, particularly in Afghanistan and in dealing with Iran's growing nuclear threat. And U.S. officials stress their relationship with the Brits is as important as ever.

"This is an incredibly valuable strategic partnership that we have with the U.K," a senior administration official said before the election. Even as he acknowledged U.S. efforts to foster stronger ties elsewhere in Europe and in Asia, the official said the U.S. and Britain "just see the world the same, and the U.K. is engaged and active in a lot of ways that are important to us."

But in part because of Obama's style of diplomacy -- less chummy with foreign leaders and less visibly sentimental about long-standing relationships -- and because of questions about Britain's place in the world, a recalibration of the relationship might be inevitable.

"We are less confident that we are relevant to America than in the past," said Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, a British think tank. Even before the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats formed their new coalition, Niblett said the outcome of the election here could produce "a Britain that is more cautious with its relationship with the United States."

Both Cameron and Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader who is the deputy prime minister in the first coalition government in Britain since World War II, have questioned the concept of a special relationship.

During the height of the Iraq war, taking a shot at Blair, Cameron warned that the relationship had become too one-sided. "We have never, until recently, been uncritical allies of America," he said then. He added, "I worry that we have recently lost the art. I fear that if we continue as at present we may combine the maximum of exposure with the minimum of real influence over decisions. The sooner we rediscover the right balance, the better for Britain and our alliance."

The comments brought a rebuke from Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady whose relationships with American presidents were always strong but rarely uncritical. She clashed with her friend Ronald Reagan on occasion. And in the hours after Iraq invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990, she warned then-president George H.W. Bush not to go "wobbly" in his response. Thatcher was also resistant to Bush's immediate support for German unification after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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