Have We Lost That "Special" Feeling? British Prime Minister Cameron’s Visit to the United States

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    Mar 12, 2012

    On March 13–14, President and Mrs. Barack Obama will host Prime Minister and Mrs. David Cameron for an official visit and a state dinner. While the United States will never match the royal pageantry and majestic backdrop of last year’s state visit in London hosted by Queen Elizabeth II, the United States knows how to impress its honored guests as well. This visit launches a series of meetings over the next several months where Messrs. Cameron and Obama will have an opportunity to interact with one another. The two will meet again at Camp David for the G8 Summit on May 18–19, in Chicago for the NATO Summit on May 20–21, and in Mexico for the G20 Summit on June 18–19. As only the second European leader to be formally fêted at the Obama White House (Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany was the first), Prime Minister Cameron’s visit comes at an opportune moment to highlight Mr. Obama’s personal relationships with key leaders in advancing U.S. foreign policy objectives.

    A Full Bilateral Plate

    Although much will be debated about state and nature of the U.S.-UK relationship this week, no one can doubt the global breadth and depth of the list of bilateral topics that the two leaders will discuss: Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, the Arab Spring, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the European sovereign debt crisis, the upcoming NATO Summit, G8 and G20 discussions, developments in Russia, and perhaps a discussion of the upcoming summer Olympics in London.

    It is likely that the entire visit will be overshadowed by the question of Afghanistan and the news reports of the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians at the hands of a U.S. soldier, following closely on the heels of the burning of holy texts. Certainly for the British, the death of six British soldiers in Afghanistan last week, the highest death toll in a single incident since 2006, is a very real reminder of the high price of this special relationship.

    Two years ago the U.S.-UK relationship underwent two significant domestic tests just as David Cameron became prime minister. The devastation of the April 20, 2010, Gulf of Mexico oil spill had awakened domestic anxiety. President Obama famously blamed the spill on “British Petroleum,” which in turn awakened a British public outcry for Prime Minister Cameron to get tough with the Americans. Washington was equally frustrated with London’s alleged duplicity with Scottish authorities over the early release of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset al-Magrahi. Both sides allowed populist sentiment to seep into official rhetoric, causing some fraying of the special relationship.

    What Makes the Relationship So Special?

    Simply put, our history forever binds our two countries. We have fought against one another and for one another. We have agreed on many issues, we have fundamental disagreements on others. We have extraordinarily close military and intelligence ties. Our economies are closely linked as well (U.S.-UK bilateral trade in goods and services in 2010 was $189.3 billion). This triumvirate—history, defense, and trade—has always and will continue to constitute our special relationship. But what has always solidified the relationship has been the personal chemistry between the two countries’ leaders. The standard bearers of the special relationship quickly come to mind: Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and, for better or worse, George Bush and Tony Blair. These close relationships were tested in war: World War II, the Cold War, and the Iraq War. For President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron, their relationship will be forged in Afghanistan, where the longest American war is now a political test of transition for the United States and its European allies in an effort to declare a semblance of success in a war that is increasingly unpopular in both countries.

    When a Special Friend Is in Need

    One subject that may or may not receive attention during this week’s visit is the Falkland Islands. April 2 marks the 30th anniversary of the Falkland Islands War, when Great Britain and Argentina fought for control over the Falklands (or “Las Malvinas” to the Argentinians), a group of islands populated by 3,000 English-speaking inhabitants. Temperatures are once again rising between London and Buenos Aires. The anniversary, recent oil drilling by the British near the Falklands, and some argue, the perception of the rise of emerging powers, combined with Europe’s disarray in the wake of its debt crisis, have all combined to create a perfect political storm.

    The British have dispatched to the Falklands a destroyer and a duke: HMS Dauntless and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, a search-and-rescue helicopter pilot. Prime Minister Cameron has accused Argentina of colonialism and pursuing a “policy of confrontation.” London has declared it will not discuss the status of the islands, as it is a matter of self-determination for the inhabitants. Newly reelected President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina has denounced these moves as the “militarization of the South Atlantic,” and her government has gone to the United Nations to complain. Regionally, Venezuela and other Latin American countries have blocked Falkland-flagged vessels from entering their ports.

    President Obama recently stated that the United Kingdom is America’s “closest partner in the world.” So, where is the United States on this issue? The United States remains neutral, stating that the United Nations should broker negotiations to settle the dispute. This persistent neutrality will be an increasing point of friction between the United States and the United Kingdom. At the time of the war in 1982, Prime Minister Thatcher blasted her American counterparts over U.S. neutrality. However, in the decisive days leading up to the Argentine occupation of the Falklands, the Reagan administration gave quiet yet vital military support to the British. Will President Obama do the same now?

    Friendship in Times of Change

    Beyond the headlines of the week’s visit, the U.S.-UK friendship is undergoing a profound test. Can the relationship remain special as emerging powers compete for the United States’ attention? Will the United Kingdom remain our closest partner as we “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region? Can the relationship remain vibrant as UK defense spending falls? Will the relationship remain strong as the United Kingdom pulls away from its European moorings and disengages from European institutions? Can the partnership be effective as both the United States and the United Kingdom turn inward to focus on their excessive debt overhang, unemployment, and public spending reductions? Unfortunately, there are more questions than answers for the future prospects of the special relationship.

    Heather A. Conley is a senior fellow and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

    Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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Heather A. Conley