You are here

No Place for Yes Men in Special Relationship

Commentary, 26 January 2009
Americas, Europe
The UK's close ties with the US are well placed to endure if we allow for full debate and disagreement and avoid unrealistic expectations of what it can achieve.

The UK's close ties with the US are well placed to endure if we allow for full debate and disagreement and avoid unrealistic expectations of what it can achieve.

By Sir Christopher Meyer, Former British Ambassador to Washington.

The symbolism of an African-American called Hussein taking the oath of office for the presidency of the United States defies hyperbole. I found his victory speech last November more moving than I had ever expected. But that was small beer compared with Tuesday’s ceremony.

The burden of expectation is terrifying. With the exception of Lincoln and Roosevelt, it is hard to think of a president who has inherited a legacy as daunting as that now weighing on Mr Obama’s shoulders.

On recent visits to America, I have found friends of every political persuasion determined to get behind him because the nation cannot afford his failure. Neither can we.

More than any other country, the US has the capacity to impact on, for better or worse, our security and prosperity; our strategic priorities abroad are in many ways filtered through the Anglo-American mesh.

If we look at our relationship since 1945, we notice two things: first, that it has oscillated extravagantly between good and bad patches; and, second, that this has had nothing to do with which party was in power in London or Washington. It has always been hard issues that have defined the relationship: whether we have seen eye-to-eye on them or not. This is why there is something pitiful about our party leaders trying to claim Mr Obama’s ideological mantle.

The economic crisis is destroying the traditional shibboleths of American – and not only American – politics. Even before the crisis, the vast deficit spending of George W Bush was sucking meaning out of what it is to be a Republican. Who would have believed that it would be a Republican administration that effectively nationalised great chunks of the American financial system? This will give the new President greater running room to pursue policies on the economy, which in the past would have been the object of partisan attack.

The mere fact that America’s troubles have infected the globe, and that the international community looks to the US to start the recovery, bears testimony to its central role in world affairs. The idea that, as America declines, China rises is absurd. In many respects, China and the US are a single economy: I buy your debt, you buy my consumer goods. It may have become fashionable to talk of the demise of America, but this is both premature and exaggerated.

It looks as though Mr Obama is going to pursue a foreign policy that is both ambitious and pragmatic, only lightly coated with American exceptionalism; it will gladden the hearts of Britain’s Foreign Office and the chancelleries of Europe.

The President will be looking for support from friends and allies for his ambitious agenda. And if we Europeans still look to the US to lead, then the US has every right to look to us for support. The challenge will be to give that support without handing over a blank cheque.

One urgent and contentious issue is Afghanistan, where things are not going well. The US and Britain have made common cause in demanding a greater military effort from other Nato allies; and the US will in turn demand from us a greater contribution, as British troops wind down in Iraq and US troops “surge” into Afghanistan.

It will be difficult to resist Mr Obama in the first flush of his administration. But the British national interest demands that there should be much greater strategic clarity about what all these troops are for. War is the extension of politics by other means.

With the Kabul government apparently so feeble and corrupt, what is the objective in Afghanistan? Is it attainable and durable? If not, we are throwing our soldiers’ lives away.

Alongside this, most of the speculation about the future of the “special relationship” is so much irrelevant twittering in the dovecotes. Will it survive the transition to Mr Obama? What if, unlike Blair, Gordon Brown isn’t the first foreign leader to get an invitation to Camp David? Will the British be supplanted, heaven forfend, by France in America’s affections?

My answer to all this fevered nonsense is “take a cold shower”. The reality is this. The British-American relationship is uniquely close in many areas. Our countries are bound together by a multiplicity of links. This will continue whether the political temperature of the moment is warm or cool.

The notion of a special relationship is fine as a rhetorical device, with its historical and sentimental connotations. But one marvels at the addiction of politicians and commentators to the idea that it brooks no mention of disagreement in public and discourages plain speaking in private. This not only undermines the British national interest; it actually damages the relationship with the US by raising wholly unrealistic expectations of what it can achieve.

Sir Christopher Meyer is former British ambassador to Washington. His article is adapted from a lecture given to the Royal United Services Institute.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

© Christopher Meyer 2009


Sir Christopher Meyer KCMG
Distinguished Fellow

Sir Christopher Meyer spent almost forty years in the British Diplomatic Service. His career culminated as ambassador to the United... read more

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Support Rusi Research