- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
You know that classic trick of telling your only daughter that she’s your favorite daughter? The U.S. appears to be employing similar linguistic cunning with its allies. America, you see, is rather promiscuous when it comes to professing best friendship.
On Wednesday, for example, as President Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard (pictured above) finalized a deal to deploy American Marines to Australia’s north coast, Obama declared that "the United States has no stronger ally" than Australia. Obama expressed similar sentiments in March after tossing an Australian football around with Gillard in the Oval Office, and prior to that in November 2010 after sitting down with Gillard for the first time (the Australian prime minister, for her part, said the two countries were "great mates").
But, alas, Gillard isn’t America’s only BFF. During a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the White House in January, President Obama enraged some Britons by proclaiming, "We don’t have a stronger friend and stronger ally than Nicolas Sarkozy, and the French people." The statement "is by far the strongest indication yet that the current White House has little regard for the Special Relationship" with Britain," fumed Nile Gardiner, whose U.S.-based Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom seeks to advance that very relationship. "Quite what the French have done to merit this kind of high praise from the U.S. president is difficult to fathom." The Daily Mail‘s Tim Shipman warned that Obama "risked offending British troops in Afghanistan" and even speculated that Obama’s attitude toward the British may "stem from his Kenyan family’s history during colonial rule."
Yet Gardiner and Shipman would have found solace had they only cast their gaze back to the spring of 2010, when Obama declared on two separate occasions that the United States had "no closer friend and ally than the United Kingdom" and "no closer ally and no stronger partner than Great Britain." Or they could have traveled back to 2009, when Obama informed India that it had "no better friend and partner than the people of the United States" and told Canada that "we could not have a better friend and ally."
These diplomatic turns of phrase, of course, didn’t start with Obama. President George W. Bush used similar language to describe countries such as Japan, Canada, Great Britain, and, yes, France. In 2006, the New York Times noted that then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had used the ”no better friend” refrain with no less than Australia, Britain (and the United Kingdom as a whole), Greece, Italy, Japan, Jordan, and Singapore.
While the "no stronger/closer/greater/better ally/friend" formulation has bred cynicism ("our strongest ally is the world leader visiting that day," National Review‘s Jim Geraghty scoffed in March), it’s also a stroke of semantic genius. By avoiding superlatives like "strongest" or "greatest," U.S. leaders appear to shower their most-valued allies with favoritism without actually picking favorites. Or, as the Independent put it in the wake of the Sarkozy/Special Relationship flap, "President Obama merely put France into the Premier League — or rather the National Basketball Association — of America’s friends. You the French, he said, are part of an ‘A-list’ of America’s pals, alongside — but not necessarily ahead of — Canada, Japan, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and Britain." In other words, it’s a seven-way tie for first place.
If "no stronger" denotes the top echelon of American friends, one wonders whether the "one of" designation (as in "one of our best friends") is interchangeable or a kind of subtle diplomatic downgrade. Obama has bestowed the "one of our strongest allies" on a number of countries including Israel, Italy, Japan, Poland, and South Korea, but other government officials have used the "no stronger" language to describe some of these countries. When President Obama visited Germany in June, he praised Germany as "one of our strongest allies" and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as "one of my closest global partners." But Merkel went the more effusive route:
Mr. President, dear Barack, in Berlin in 2008, you spoke to more than 200,000 people. And in your address, you said America has no better partner than Europe. And now it’s my turn to say Europe and Germany have no better partner than America.
Will America return the favor? If Germany saves Europe from its debt crisis, the U.S. very well might.