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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.

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Clegg, too, has openly question the concept of a special relationship. During the campaign just completed, the Liberal Democrat leader warned against being taken for granted by the United States.

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"I think it's sometimes rather embarrassing the way Conservative and Labor politicians talk in this kind of slavish way about the special relationship," he said. "If you speak to hard-nosed folk in Washington they think 'it's a good relationship but it's not the special relationship.' "

Other signs also point to changes. On Wednesday morning, William Hague, newly named foreign minister in the coalition government, called the United States an "indispensable partner" but added that he and Cameron agree that relations should be "solid but not slavish."

That remark echoed a speech from a year ago in which Hague argued that, while ties with the United States remained of central importance, Britain needed to work on other relationships as well, particularly with China and India.

Hague is decidedly skeptical of greater entanglement with Europe and his words should be read in that context. But they also spoke to the wider concerns that Britain must find its own way in the 21st century.

"For too long, politics in this country has been obsessed with Europe and America," Hague said. "Of course these relationships are, and will continue to be, vital. But serious and responsible leadership in the twenty-first century means engaging with far greater energy in parts of the world where Britain's strategic interests will increasingly lie."

Adding to the consensus, a report by a House of Commons committee earlier this year said Britain should be more willing to say no to the United States. The report, according to a wire service report, said the term "special relationship" was misleading and needed to be reevaluated.

British officials have also been struck that in action, if not in word, Obama has signaled that there are other relationships that have assumed a higher priority in his administration. They have watched him work closely with Russia and devote himself to improving the U.S. relationship with China.

Adding to concerns that Obama cares less about Britain that his predecessors did, the British press seized on perceived slights by the U.S. of Gordon Brown, who stepped down as prime minister on Tuesday. U.S. and British officials say the media here overplayed those incidents, in part because of their dislike of Brown.

But on both sides of the Atlantic, there is recognition that Obama's unsentimental style requires an adjustment by officials here and elsewhere in Europe. British and European officials wonder "where's the love?" from a politician who is still enormously popular in their countries. U.S. officials are reported to be working harder to show more of that love.

Cameron met candidate Obama two years ago, during Obama's trip to the Middle East and Europe. The chemistry was good, Obama advisers say. The president has invited the new prime minister to visit the United States in July.

No doubt the requisite words will be said, dinners held and photo opportunities staged.

Still, officials in and out of government here say Britain needs a more hard-headed relationship with the United States, in keeping with what they see as Obama's approach to Britain and the world. Some fear that the comfort of a "special relationship" can become a substitute for serious thinking about Britain's role.

Britain under David Cameron will remain one of America's most reliable and important allies. But the balance in the relationship may continue to change, as the new British government makes its way in the world.


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