13 Mar 2012

Is the UK just a date for the US on a lonely night?

As David Cameron and Barack Obama huddle at  the White House, cosy up at a basketball game, write a joint leader in the Washington Post and dance with each other’s wives at a state dinner, the relationship between Britain and the USA is about to get another fresh injection of images to add to the album.

David and Barack cheering the shooting of hoops will be added to Tony and George’s Colgate moment, Ronnie and Maggie on the dance floor, Winston and Franklin chewing on cigars.

The relationship, we are told by Downing Street, is no longer “special”. It is “essential”. This begs the question: for what? Perhaps we could just settle on “occasionally irresistible.”

For Tony Blair it turned into a fatal attraction over Iraq. Despite his impeccable transatlantic credentials, his annual holidays in Cape Cod and the plaudits he received for helping – sort of – to save the global financial system, grim Gordon never quite knew how to steer the transition from George Bush, the world’s most hated American president, to Barack Obama, briefly its most beloved.

David Cameron came to office vowing that the relationship, based on shared values and history, would be close but never slavish. The poodle had become a great dane. But even he could not conceal his excitement when he was invited onto Marine 1, the presidential helicopter, on his last visit here.

Now he has gone one better. As diplomats have been stressing, Mr.Cameron will become the first sitting leader to travel with President Obama on Air Force One. It will be a smaller version of the plane from the movies. They are, after all, only going to Dayton Ohio, about an hour and 10 minutes away. It’s like hopping on the shuttle from London to Glasgow. But hey, when the resident is on board, even a Cessna becomes Air Force One.

I am not sure whether the voters of Ohio will be impressed. They get to see the president, any president, an awful lot in a re-election year. When I was there last week, none of them seemed to know who the British prime minister even is. “That guy Johnny Blair?” one of them asked at a bowling alley, his long-term memory delivering an intriguing historical cocktail of John Major and Tony Blair.

In fact, this matters little. The president will be in his element watching basketball. The prime minister, who has, I am told, been mugging up on “March Madness” and basketball etiquette, will be charming. It will be a moment to savour, albeit briefly. Like a chocolate mint dissolving on the tongue before the indigestion sets in.

The last few years have not been easy for the relationship. There was the Iraq War hangover. The BP oil spill was seen by some – quite wrongly – as the example of an arrogant British toff – Tony Hayward – callously fouling America’s precious Gulf. Even the President started to talk scathingly about British Petroleum.

Obama seemed to be far more interested in Asia and Angela (Merkel), and he appeared to subscribe to that Palmerstonian principle of foreign affairs: there are no such things as permanent friends and enemies, only permanent interests.

The mood had changed, just in time for the late winter airing on American TV of the Downton Abbey Christmas special. Obama has realised that even if he doesn’t stay up at night worrying about how essential or special the relationship is, there is something useful about a mate you can rely on, like a permanently available date for a lonely night.

Our troops are umbilically linked in Afghanistan, an issue that will now dominate this week’s talks after Britain’s worst week of casualties and America’s worst alleged war crime in that conflict. And at a time when Britain has become more isolated from Europe, it is reassuring to point to your best friends on the other side of the Atlantic.

There are also costs to the cosiness. The prime minister felt obliged to tag along with the US at the UN  Security Council over rejecting a Palestinian vote on statehood even though the British government privately took a different position. The one-sided extradition treaty with the US is widely considered an outrage in the UK.

For Barack Obama the cost benefit ratio of this relationship is probably neutral. But as recent history has shown, for Britain it is loaded with promise and peril. Getting the balance right is the trick. The relationship may not be essential or special but it has proved to be irresistible.

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