Is there still time to save the Special Relationship?

Is there still time to save the Special Relationship?

As if the embattled "special relationship" between America and Britain needed any more drama, along comes this report from the U.K. Parliament saying that the Special Relationship doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) even exist anymore. According to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee:

The use of the phrase ‘the special relationship’ in its historical sense, to describe the totality of the ever-evolving UK-US relationship, is potentially misleading, and we recommend that its use should be avoided."

Well. If this is intended to help Labour in the upcoming elections, it is just silly. But if this in fact heralds a substantive change in U.K. policy, it is both troubling and foolish. Without the United States, the United Kingdom’s only other viable option for a distinctive international partner is the European Union. Yet Brussels will continue punching way below its bureaucratic weight in foreign and defense policy — if it can even develop a coherent foreign and defense policy. 

Thankfully, it does not seem that the U.K. Foreign Office agreed with the report. The Foreign Ministry press office, in a head-scratching case of trying to change "happy" to "glad," gamely asserted that if the relationship isn’t "special," at least it is "unique." According to their spokeswoman:

It doesn’t really matter whether someone calls it the ‘special relationship’ or not. What matters is that theUK’s relationship with the US is unique, and uniquely important to protecting our national security and promoting our national interest."

To give the benefit of the doubt to the press officer, her statement tries to maintain some manner of distinction about the U.S.-U.K. alliance. But whether it is called "special" or "unique," it is undeniably in trouble.

Part of the problem comes from apathy. U.K. citizens are preoccupied with domestic issues.  Most of the major U.K. newspapers ignored the House of Commons report; only the Sunday Times even covered it, in a short story in the inside pages. The headlines instead are about the continuing reverberations from Alistair Darling’s cynical pre-election budget, and the ongoing row over the latestcorruption scandal in which several Labour MPs have been caught on hidden camera peddling their influence for sale. (One likened himself to a "cab for hire" — an insult to London cab drivers, who are the finest in the world, not to mention a better value). 

There are also deeper issues in the U.S.-U.K .relationship, which is suffering from neglect from both sides. To begin, President Obama’s initial honeymoon of soft power appeal in the U.K. has lost whatever luster it once had, and which never translated into concrete policy accomplishments. Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s clumsy efforts to distance himself from his predecessor Tony Blair have included adopting a lukewarm posture towards the United States.

In his superb Alvin Bernstein lecture last November, Eric Edelman identified four structural pillars which defined the Special Relationship in the post-war years: leaders committed to shared values, tradition, and mission; a willingness by both nations to wage war together; scientific and technological cooperation on the nuclear deterrent; and tight intelligence cooperation. All four of these pillars, Edelman lamented, have been eroding on both sides of the Atlantic. If these trends continue, Churchill’s words in 1946 — prophetic at the time — risk becoming merely anachronistic:

Neither the sure prevention of war, nor the continuous rise of world organization will be gained without what I have called the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples … a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States."

Yet the Special Relationship is "not dead yet." There are opportunities here for political leaders in both countries. President Obama, as I have written before, should seize the initiative and set up an official visit with whichever man wins the U.K. elections on May 6, as soon as the new Prime Minister is determined (still most likely to be David Cameron). Last Sunday, Shadow Foreign Minister William Hague and Foreign Minister David Miliband held a Sky News television debate, which revealed few substantial differences between Labour and the Tories on national security policy. Now this foolish House of Commons report offers a chance for Cameron and Hague to draw a clear distinction between their party and Labour. As Nile Gardiner has urged, the Conservatives should loudly reject the report and make maintaining — or rather reviving — the Special Relationship a centerpiece of their foreign policy platform.