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America and Britain: Still BFF?

By Andrew Zvirzdin

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's recent visit to the White House went according to plan. And that's what upset the British. There was no jovial banter between the two heads of state, no elaborate press conference or special honors bestowed on Brown, and no assurance by Obama that Great Britain enjoys a privileged relationship with America. To a country accustomed to a special standing with the world's superpower, Brown's uneventful trip to Washington was a disaster and marks a seismic shift in US-British relations.

President Bush's well-known friendship with former PM Tony Blair during the past eight years reinforced the long-standing perception that Great Britain is a unique ally of the United States. In fact, since the Suez Canal crisis of 1956, Great Britain has reliably supported the American stance on most major foreign policy issues (including the Iraq War). In return, British officials have enjoyed unprecedented access to American leaders. Churchill famously coined the Anglo-American link a special relationship.¯

But the Obama administration is not picking favorites, to the great dismay of Great Britain.

A week before Brown's arrival, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs referred only to a pecial partnership¯ between the two countries. The slight linguistic shift from Churchill's "relationship"¯ may seem insignificant. But combined with the fact that the White House returned the bust of Churchill that Blair loaned to Bush, the shift appears as a foreboding signal that Great Britain is "just"¯ another ally of the U.S.

The subsequent meeting between the leaders only seemed to confirm British fears: there was no 19-gun salute, as during the Clinton administration; no full press conference with flags, as during the Bush administration; apparently even the gifts given Brown and his family were boring. These White House gaffes have dominated British media, even though Obama sought to reaffirm the special relationship¯ (not "partnership"¯ as Gibbs had said) and despite the rare honor given the Prime Minister to address a joint session of Congress.

Because the "special relationship"¯ has become part of British national identity, Obama's actions appeared deeply insulting and rude to some in the British media. It seems likely, though, that Obama means no disrespect but is instead signaling his intention to engage in a less-polarizing style of diplomacy than his predecessors. In this worldview, there are fewer "best friends" but also fewer "worst enemies."¯

It is significant, in this context, that Brown's lackluster visit came during the same week that Obama's efforts to reach out to Russia and Iran were made public. Perhaps the price of making more friends in the world is to be less exclusive with your best friend.

Andrew Zvirzdin is a graduate student in European Studies and Economics at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Bologna Center in Italy.

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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Johns Hopkins University.

Comments (2)

kilgore_nobiz Author Profile Page:

I really hope the Obama administration doesn't believe they can have a "let's be friends with everybody" foreign policy. Like kids in gradeschool, when you try to make everyone like you, you are more likely to end up friends with no one. They better grow up and accept a lot of nations will never align themselves with the US no matter what and make the best of the situation with the nations that do.

Frog2 Author Profile Page:

The question is: It is that so bad for Britain?

After all maybe less gentle snaps on U.K's back means more freedom of stance in the international stage.

There is a fierce trend to bash the French in the US (and in Britain !)nevertheless Paris used to act more freely worldwide however most of the time, in the same direction that the US one.

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