In the 1946 speech in which he famously coined the term “iron curtain,” Winston Churchill also advanced the idea that the United States and Britain must remain fast friends and allies.
“Neither the sure prevention of war, nor the continuous rise of world organization will be gained without what I have called the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples,” he said in Fulton, Mo. “This means a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States.”
Seven decades later, the special relationship doesn’t look quite as special as it once did. Germany has taken the lead role in negotiations over Ukraine’s confrontation with Russia. Germany is also leading talks over Greece’s crippling debt burden. France has rooted out militant Islamist factions in Algeria and Niger.
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron, reelected in a landslide Thursday, has trimmed Britain’s defense budget, appointed a budget-minded isolationist foreign minister, and antagonized the European Union by demanding reforms while factions in his party threaten to exit the union. At a Group of Seven summit meeting in Turkey last November, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble angered Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, by turning to him and saying, “Now for a comment from outside Europe.”
But White House officials and Western diplomats say that President Obama and Cameron still have a special rapport.
“The president has always had a very good and easygoing relationship with Prime Minister Cameron,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser. “They are generationally of a similar age, and I think they came into office as people committed to reform both within their own parties and the broader political environment.”
During a visit by Cameron in 2012, Obama and the prime minister watched college basketball, traveled on Air Force One, flipped burgers and played ping-pong together. Obama threw a lavish state dinner with 260 guests. And Cameron reciprocated later during a visit by Obama to Britain.
“There is genuine warmth there,” said a former British official.
They have also done small political favors for each other. In 2012, Cameron did not roll out the red carpet for Mitt Romney, who visited Britain in an effort to polish his foreign policy credentials. When Romney questioned London’s preparations for the Summer Olympics, Cameron retorted with a reference to Romney’s role organizing the Salt Lake City Olympics. “Of course it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere,” he said.
During a visit to Washington in January, Cameron gave Obama a boost with Congress by opposing additional sanctions on Iran while talks over Tehran’s nuclear program were still in progress. Cameron even phoned some lawmakers to urge restraint — a sharp contrast to efforts by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Rhodes said that Obama and Cameron speak by phone often during “every twist and turn we’ve had on policy,” whether on Iran negotiations or counterterrorism.
Still, the rapport between Obama and Cameron hasn’t risen to the strong partnership between President Ronald Reagan and “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher or the bonds between Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and Britain’s personable Tony Blair.
Blair and Clinton helped bring peace to Northern Ireland and coordinated actions in the war in Kosovo. Blair and George W. Bush jumped arm in arm into Iraq. Reagan and Thatcher rode horses together and joined in condemning the Soviet Union.
Moreover, Obama and Cameron have very different views about the role of government and how to spend taxpayer money. In 2009, when Obama was pushing Congress to adopt a massive stimulus spending bill, Osborne visited administration officials and laid out plans for austerity to deal with the financial crisis gripping the world. Only after Britain’s economy grew worse did Cameron’s government ease its austerity push and provide room for growth.
“This government is about reducing public spending, so raising defense spending is fairly unlikely,” said Philippe Le Corre, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. “How much can they contribute to the defense of Europe or the Middle East, where the United States is feeling a bit lonely sometimes?”
He added: “The United States used to have very good ambassadors in Europe, whether Thatcher or Blair. And Cameron is not a credible figure in Europe.”
There have been substantive if not personal irritants in relations. With Osborne in the lead, Britain recently joined the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a move the Obama administration had discouraged. In the past, the administration said the bank would serve as a vehicle for Chinese ambitions.
Cameron also chose to ask Parliament for approval to join the United States in a bombing campaign in Syria, then bowed to Parliament when it rejected such action. Rhodes said the British vote put Obama in an awkward position and was “a difficult hurdle.” He said the vote reflected war fatigue similar to what the United States has experienced after long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ultimately, Obama followed a similar path, asking but not getting approval from Congress to conduct airstrikes in Syria.
But, Rhodes added, the British “are still very much expeditionary in their foreign policy and willing to use force when necessary.”
The British Embassy in Washington said that as of May 5, Tornado fighter jets had flown 366 combat missions in Iraq against the Islamic State, conducting 136 successful strikes. It said Royal Air Force unmanned drones, called Reapers, had flown 415 missions, conducting 105 successful strikes.
Moreover, while Britain has trimmed defense spending, it remains one of just five NATO countries to maintain military spending at or above the alliance’s target of 2 percent of gross domestic product. The others are France, Turkey, Greece and the United States, which even after reductions still devotes 3.8 percent of its GDP to the military.
Western diplomats say that Britain and the United States still share a sense of responsibility in world affairs that most other nations lack. The two cooperated in fighting the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa. While Germany has taken a lead on Ukraine, Cameron has joined those backing sanctions against Russia and has helped bolster European resolve on the costly measure.
And Obama and Cameron have similar views on free trade; both support the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a trade agreement that is to be negotiated between the E.U. and the United States.
“They are soul mates on free trade and making economic recovery sustainable and permanent,” said a Western diplomat.
“What is interesting is that the president is a Democrat and Cameron is a Tory, but there’s not much space between them on a lot of issues including issues like climate change and diplomacy with Iran and Afghanistan,” Rhodes said. “They’re both fairly pragmatic.”
Britain’s ambassador to the United States, Peter Westmacott, said: “Look at the last two decades. Six times the British and Americans have been at war together. There are bonds, as they say, forged in war. This week, V-E Day is another reminder of what we’ve been through together.”