British Prime Minister David Cameron spent three days in the US, meeting with President Barack Obama and various other officials. The visit comes hot on the heels of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and at a conspicuous time for both the UK and US polities. However the lack of substantial discussion or political breakthroughs has cast a shadow over the visit, and called into question the relevance of the ‘special relationship’ between the two traditional allies.
British Prime Minister David Cameron received an extremely warm welcome for his first official visit to the US, with a state dinner, a trip on Airforce One and a very ‘chummy’ day at the baseball. The media have almost lampooned the lack of real politics on the trip, wondering simultaneously at the need for all the show of affection on both sides.
British media have been especially interested in the visit, however there has been unflattering coverage of the ‘fawning’ nature of Cameron’s speeches and attitude. Opinions were also divided as to whether the UK should be pleased with the very warm reception of their Prime Minister, or whether it was all politicized. One observer noted that “With a presidential election eight months away, it seems he [Obama] has decided it will do him no harm, and conceivably a little good, to be seen chomping hot dogs with a foreign leader such as Mr. Cameron, though few people in America appear yet to know who he is.”
The lack of coverage in the US media is also noteworthy. The presence of TV stars and movie stars at the state dinner drew more attention than anything the two heads of state might have discussed, as did what the two First Ladies wore on their several outings together. So if not many in the US were paying attention, was the whole spectacle intended simply to please watchers in the UK? Or were there other motives?
The EU Question
It may be noted that the overtly affectionate display between Obama and Cameron could have been, in part, on show for others around the world, namely those in the EU who are increasingly at odds with the UK. Historically the US has had a stronger relationship with the UK than with any other in Europe, and it appears to be a relationship that both want to continue, despite the diminished power of the UK on the world stage. The EU debt crisis, which has seen Germany take a somewhat reluctant leadership role, is threatening the collapse of the currency union. So while the EU teeters on the edge, with Germany at the helm, the UK may be looking for reassurance from the US that their ‘special relationship’ still endures.
However, this special relationship is the key to the US’s good relations with the rest of the EU. And as the political space between members of the EU, particularly France and Germany, grows wider with the UK, there are concerns that the US will have increased difficulty in dealing with the EU if the UK becomes too far outside the mainstream.
Points of Discussion
While there might not have been any ground-breaking meetings between the two head of state, there are issues that both the US and the UK have in common, which were points of discussion as they met in Washington. The primary point in common is the lingering war in Afghanistan, where both countries are aiming for a withdrawal by 2014 with as much dignity and purpose as they can muster. While NATO is meeting in May in Chicago to draw up clearer plans of the staged withdrawal from Afghanistan, neither leader was forthcoming with more details as to the exact timetable.
The Syrian issue is another point both leaders talked about, although there was more postulating and philosophizing than making any concrete decision, with the pair only stating that military intervention was not the answer.
The looming issue of Iran was another hot topic, where Cameron was explicit enough to state that “I don’t think as we stand today that military action by Israel would be justified. I don’t think the Israelis should take that action now. We told them they shouldn’t and said we wouldn’t support it if they did. We’ve been very clear.” Obama has cautioned Iran that while there is still “time and space” for talking “the window for diplomacy is shrinking.” This comes on the heels of Isreali Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit with Obama, where a similar message was given, although the staunchest support for Israel was emphasized by the US president.
The most concrete result of the visit was an assurance by the UK that they would consider releasing strategic reserves of oil, in a bid to help lower escalating global prices, which has been costing Obama politically as rising gas prices dampen his popularity at home.
Relevance of Relationship
With the pending withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan, some observers are speculating that the freeing up of US forces will lessen the US’s need for support from the UK, should an attack on Iran occur after US forces leave Afghanistan. This is further affirmed by the fact that the UK is cutting its military budget. The traditional relationship between the two countries, based on shared political clout and military might, may be reaching an end date. Britain has diminished in the sphere of grand power politics, and as its military diminishes also, so will its ability to project power far afield.
Cameron also touched on the fact that the US is shifting its focus from Europe, where it has little ability, or political will, to help out with the current financial mess. The realignment towards the Asia Pacific may also lessen the strategic importance of the UK.
There is the possibility then that while the relationship remains warm and the historical ties between the two countries will ensure they stay that way, the position of the UK as a key strategic ally may lessen considerably. This is borne out by the fact that the Cameron’s whole visit to the US has been viewed in a rather comical light, rather than serious political figures, and labeled broadly as ‘basketball diplomacy’ with no substance other than keeping up appearances.