May 13, 2010

Cameron and Obama

After the American Century

The first foreign leader to call David Cameron to congratulate him on becoming prime minister came not from inside the EU but from the White House. One often hears that the "special relationship" between Britain and the United States is not what it used to be, but I think this is mistaken. The reality has always been that these two nations are a bit like brothers. They may not always get along, but when a crisis comes, they almost always stand on the same side. When people say that the "specialness" is on the wane, they usually have a glorified idea of how close the connection was. But during World War II, the British public felt that the Americans were too slow to come to their aid, and once they did come by the million, they complained that the soldiers were "over sexed, over paid, and over here." At the same time, they fought and died together in North Africa, Italy, and France before the final push into Germany.

Looking further back into the nineteenth century, US/UK relations were a bit rockier, to say the least. But few people today remember these tensions, though most know that they fought a war from 1812-1815. Most Americans mistakenly think they won that war, and it is probably just as well not to explain that the US ally was Napoleon, who obviously lost.

At the moment, the US and the UK again need each other, for several reasons. They have to work together against the threat of terrorism, and they need to cooperate to keep their economies and currencies strong. Now that the Euro is becoming a bit uncertain and losing value, the dollar is getting stronger by comparison. No doubt Cameron hopes that American investors and bankers will continue to locate offices and factories in Britain.  And surely Obama wants to form a good relationship with the new leader of such an important ally, particularly with the war in Afghanistan and the withdrawal from Iraq and the situation in Pakistan all looking difficult, to put it mildly. Moreover, the British have better relations with Iran than the US, and Washington needs London to talk to Tehran.

In that election phone call, Obama invited Cameron to come to Washington. The two men are roughly the same age, and should have a  good chance of forging a personal relationship that builds trust between them.  These are not tranquil times, and these two leaders will need each other.