Will the Obama-Cameron relationship be special?

12th May 2010, Comments 0 comments

David Cameron had barely stepped inside 10 Downing Street before President Barack Obama was on the phone, in a swift show of friendly intent toward the new British prime minister.

Though the speed of Tuesday's call was surprising, Obama may have been more motivated by the need to send a signal to edgy global markets than inspired by a sudden burst of enthusiasm for the "special relationship."

That diplomatic tie-up, an obsession in London but viewed more dispassionately in Washington, has seemed lukewarm recently, following the fateful embrace of George W. Bush and Tony Blair over Iraq.

But backers of the London-Washington axis hope Cameron will revive ties some Britons feel Obama has neglected.

"I think that clearly, the president is making early overtures to the Cameron government," said Nile Gardiner, director of The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation.

"This is a very positive step after a year and a half of very bad blood between Downing Street and the Obama team."

Politically, Obama and Cameron could hardly be more different. The Briton campaigned against big government, while the American led the deepest government intervention into public life in decades.

But Obama and Cameron, who met in London in 2008, may find some personal synergy. Both are pragmatic, largely non-ideological, and see themselves as the embodiment of political change.

Cameron, the youngest British prime minister in nearly 200 years, will travel to Washington in July to meet Obama, who inspired youthful legions of voters en route to the White House.

While Obama and ex-prime minister Gordon Brown forged respect while battling the deepest economic crisis in decades, they seemed an odd political couple.

Some observers say Obama treated Brown poorly, and insulted some Britons when he removed a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office.

Brown, a formal, Presbyterian Scot, seemed from a different political generation than the flashy Obama.

"Cameron is a very smooth, polished character," said Reginald Dale of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"He has more of the social graces than Gordon Brown, who was an angular, crusty character, who was always seething underneath."

The White House repeatedly denied it snubbed Brown, and despaired of tales of Anglo-US tension whipped up by the British press.

But early on, the Obama White House did seem loath to pay rhetorical homage to the "special relationship."

In fact, that fabled alliance may have seen its best days -- simply because the world has changed from the days of Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

"Obama doesn't seem to have a special relationship with anyone," said Mark Blyth, a professor of political economy at Brown University, referring to the US president's clinical assessments of US interests.

Obama, who last year dubbed himself the first "Pacific president," seems to lack his predecessors' cultural or emotional empathy toward Europe.

Big events that forged the trans-Atlantic alliance -- two World Wars and the Cold War -- are now history, as Obama looks to the exploding development of rising Asian powers.

In fact, he seems keener on BRICs than Brits -- BRICs being the acronym of emerging economies Brazil, Russia, India and China.

"The game has moved on," said Blyth.

So what does Washington want from its stalwart ally -- and can Cameron deliver?

With fears the debt crisis could cross the Atlantic, the last thing Obama needs is another weak European government wary of tough decisions on slashing deficits and cutting budgets.

But it remains unclear whether Cameron's uneasy coalition with the Liberal Democrats will provide the necessary steely leadership.

Britain is most valued here for signing up to US military adventures overseas, like Afghanistan.

Blyth said Britain often provides America with a "fig leaf of legitimacy" for foreign wars, and its military has interoperability with hi-tech US forces.

And unlike some other European militaries, British forces are often in the thick of the fight.

But with the British military braced for massive budget cuts, some in Washington wonder how long London will pack a significant punch overseas.

Most British foreign policy will remain in lockstep with Washington.

But Cameron may face US pressure on Europe: traditionally the White House likes to see Britain engaged on the continent.

"The United States is always happy to have a free trade, anti-protectionist Britain in there in Brussels as a first line of defense," said Dale.

Cameron's Conservatives, however, are riven with splits over Europe, and their Euro-skepticism may limit their clout on the continent.

© 2010 AFP

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