The U.S.-U.K. Special Relationship: ‘It’s Not You, It’s Me’

Great Britain’s 70 year long run as Starsky to the American Hutch, Athens to our Rome, appears to near its end. Arguably the so-called ‘special relationship’ — to the extent it arguably existed — ceased to be around Skybolt, back in the Kennedy era. Inertia (and rock n’ roll) kept optics intact.

Like in all relationships, brief make-ups and even re-infatuations propelled delusion. Thatcher, famously, for a while. Blair, infamously, for longer. All one way.

It’s not like people haven’t known this. As imprisoned Cuban spy and former State Department employee Kendall Myers famously stated (before arrest), the special relationship was a myth, the British receiving nothing in return. During Blair’s bromance with W., Myers declared Conservative leader Cameron’s aloofness to America ‘wise.’ (So he’s a DGI agent, we get it. Still, he spoke for many at the time on this point).

So now comes young conservative Prime Minister David Cameron Ed Milliband to D.C. His Spotify list doubtlessly more hip than the comparatively older Obama. Cameron seeks to prove to the ‘set’ back in London that ‘special relationship’ is alive and well. Near the top of his list? More aggressive action against Assad.

PR and imagery aside, Cameron isn’t likely to get much.
Great Britain, Syria, Libya, Special Relationship

Institutional Washington, perhaps out of guilt, goes through the motions of a committed relationship. Cameron will see red carpets, fetes, State Dinners and so forth. Still, the signs are there. Anyone past a high school breakup can see them: ‘Just not that into you.’ ‘I’ve decided to focus more on my career right now’. ‘It’s not you, it’s me.’

The Euro Crisis is proving to be another Suez — a ruthless audit of power and standing. It’s Berlin and Germany that are primus inter pares. France follows. The U.K.? Voiceless, an outsider looking in. The City in London frets that Frankfurt will leave it behind. At home, Cameron follows the American Rightist fixation on restoration of social inequality, hierarchy and privilege. He may even have David Brooks’ latest book by the night table.

It’s true the U.K. took a leading role in Libya. Pushing for war, bombing and inserting SAS troops on the ground. Cameron (one hopes) is not likely to find Washington as receptive to his recipe for Syrian humanitarian interventionism.

The brutal truth? Pretending a special relationship exists is becoming difficult. American attention and power are leaving Europe. Re-deploying the military footprint merely the most obvious manifestation. Great Britain’s claim to pretense lay in lingering memories of its European history. It’s a regional power on the edge of a region of receding priorities. Military cutbacks will only reduce British reach.

It’s not all bleak. British soft power, while not what it was in the 1960s and 70s, remains influential. British actors are much sought after to play Americans. Simon Cowell’s peacock as American as Sony. Piers Morgan squats on CNN, etc. It’s fair, perhaps, given that we’ve imposed David Brooks on them. For all that, Britain, for historical reasons, is likely to remain a far more cosmopolitan society than America.

Intelligence coordination will remain tight across the Anglo Community for some time. Even as more public manifestations of relationships dim or are replaced.

Americans we suspect will look back at the British experience with rue and wonder. Assuming British power really began to rely on the American with the Dawes Plan in 1923-24, the British maintained global relevance for almost a century. It’s easy to be snarky. It’s no small historical accomplishment.

We won’t get that ride. Regardless of statesmanship. First, the British transition occurred within the same Western ecumenical family. British capital founded the economy that would supplant them. Future contending global powers — even those fueled by American IP, capital and market access — are outside that shared cultural and historical memory. Second, the Cold War’s structural rigidities sustained and supported British efforts.

Our turn will be bumpier. Hang on.

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