Shadow Government

U.S. must work on special relationship no matter who wins in May

What if — perish the thought — a Shadow Government contributor made a policy suggestion that turns out not to work? In the interest of self-scrutiny and blogosphere accountability, that just might be the case with this recommendation by yours truly from a couple months ago that President Obama build a close relationship with soon-to-be-elected ...

Peter Macdiarmid/WPA Pool/Getty Images
Peter Macdiarmid/WPA Pool/Getty Images

What if — perish the thought — a Shadow Government contributor made a policy suggestion that turns out not to work? In the interest of self-scrutiny and blogosphere accountability, that just might be the case with this recommendation by yours truly from a couple months ago that President Obama build a close relationship with soon-to-be-elected British Prime Minister David Cameron. A recommendation I still stand by — but only if Cameron actually does get elected. Which is now by no means certain, as the May 6th election date looms and UK voters begin to tune in. A spate of polls here in the UK in the last couple of weeks show the Conservative lead dwindling to the point of discomfort. Yes, the Tories are still ahead, but margins as low as 4 points are nothing like the steady lead of about 15 points that they had enjoyed for much of the past year — numbers that it seems were driven more by voter disdain for Labour and Gordon Brown than by a genuine embrace of the Tories. And given that the electoral map is heavily biased towards Labour, as Gerald Warner points out the Conservatives probably need to win 41 per cent to Labour’s 29 per cent to ensure an effective majority. Put another way, David Cameron needs to get 2 million more votes than Gordon Brown merely to draw even in Parliamentary seats.

Add to this the unprecedented television debates scheduled between Cameron and Brown which introduce a whole new wild card — surprisingly, such televised campaign face-offs haven’t ever before been done here in the land of Prime Minister’s Question Time. While popular expectations are that the deft Cameron will have the upper hand, Brown might be able to play the underdog role to his advantage and pleasantly surprise just enough viewing voters to tip the scales. And playing (to put it in American terms) the Ross Perot-Ralph Nader-spoiler role, Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats just might win enough seats to be king-makers in a coalition government (though don’t take the comparison too far — Clegg is a more credible leader than Perot or Nader, and the Lib Dems are a viable third party). With all of this electoral uncertainty, even talk of a possible "hung Parliament" is becoming commonplace.

Even as President Obama’s future British counterpart remains unclear, the overall U.S.-U.K. relationship is in rocky straits. Existing strains in the alliance were worsened by Secretary Clinton’s awkward remarks about the recent Falklands imbroglio. Her words may have caused hardly a blip in the United States but dominated headlines here in London, and provoked another bout of British hand-wringing over alleged American disdain and the perilous state of the Special Relationship. Yet just when U.S.-U.K. ties are in serious need of sustained attention from each nation’s respective head of government, on both sides of the Atlantic domestic issues are consuming all of the oxygen (e.g. the health care debate in the United States; elections and the economy in the United Kingdom). 

Letting this drift continue will only harm vital U.S. interests. Many of the front-burner international issues that the Obama administration faces — such as Afghanistan, Iran, energy security, and the fragile global economy — cannot be addressed without active European involvement, and the U.K. still remains the key linchpin for US ties with NATO and the EU. Not to mention that President Obama still needs to forge a real friendship with at least one and preferably several world leaders. His delayed-but-upcoming trip to Indonesia and Australia offers a chance to connect with, respectively, SBY and Kevin Rudd. The White House should add to this list the U.K. Prime Minister who emerges on May 6 — whoever he is — and sit down with him very soon thereafter for fish and chips, a pint of bitter, and a nice long talk.    

Will Inboden is executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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