No other international alliance seems to come under the intense scrutiny reserved for the one between Britain and the United States. There is a seemingly endless British preoccupation with the health of the special relationship. Its temperature is continually taken to see if it’s in good shape, its pulse checked to see if it will survive.
I have never understood this anxiety. The US-UK relationship is simple: It’s strong because it delivers for both of us. The alliance is not sustained by our historical ties or blind loyalty. This is a partnership of choice that serves our national interests.
There are three sets of critics who seem to fret incessantly about the relationship: those who question the whole concept, those who say it is no longer “special,” and those fixated on form rather than substance. Each of them is misguided.
The first group seems to view America as some sort of “evil empire,” a country that is too powerful, that does nothing but sow discord in the world. They say Britain should have much less to do with America. I say they are just plain wrong.
The U.S. is a formidable force for good. Together we fought fascism, stood up to communism, and championed democracy. Today we are combating international terrorism, pressing for peace in the Middle East, working for an Iran without the bomb, and tackling climate change and global poverty.
Then there are those who claim the US-UK relationship was special once but not any longer. They argue that the U.S. doesn’t care about Britain because we don’t bring enough to the table. This attitude overlooks our unique relations across the world–throughout the Gulf States and with India and Pakistan, not to mention the strong ties with China and our links through the Commonwealth with Africa and Australia. There’s also the professionalism and bravery of our servicemen and women who have spent much of their careers serving alongside Americans in the world’s combat zones. And the skill and close relationship of our intelligence agencies.
Finally, there are those who over-analyze the atmospherics around the relationship. They forensically compute the length of meetings; whether it’s a brush-by or a full bilateral; the number of mentions in a president’s speech; dissecting the location and grandeur of the final press conference– fretting even over whether you’re standing up or sitting down together. This sort of Kremlinology might have had its place in interpreting our relations with Moscow during the Cold War. It is absurd to apply it to our oldest and staunchest ally.
I know how annoying this is for Americans, and it certainly frustrates me. I am hard-headed and realistic about US-UK relations. I understand that we are the junior partner–just as we were in the 1940s and, indeed, in the 1980s. But we are a strong, self-confident country clear in our views and values, and we should behave that way.
The US is a global power, with shorelines facing the Pacific and Atlantic, so of course it must cultivate relations with Indonesia, China and others, just as it has to with Europe. We’re living in a new world where the balance of power in different regions is shifting, and the US is strengthening its ties with rising powers. Britain is doing the same thing. That’s why I’m off to Turkey and India shortly and why we have a strategic relationship with China. In a world of fast-growing, emerging economies, we have a responsibility to engage more widely and bring new countries to the top table of the international community. To do so is pro-American and pro-British, because it’s the only way we will maintain our influence in a changing world.
When I see President Obama this week we have a very clear common agenda: succeeding in Afghanistan, securing economic growth and stability at home and across the world, fighting protectionism. And on one issue in particular, Lockerbie, let me be absolutely clear there’s no daylight between us. I have the deepest sympathies for the families of those killed in the bombing. Abdel Baset al-Megrahi was found guilty of murdering 270 people. They weren’t allowed to go home and die in their own bed with their relatives around them. I never saw the case for releasing him, and I think it was a very bad decision.
There will inevitably be areas where we have differences of emphasis, such as trade. As I made clear at June’s G-8 and G-20 meetings, promoting trade will be a huge priority for my government. It’s the real stimulus our economies need, and Britain is open for business–especially to the US, where our close ties already deliver jobs and prosperity for both our peoples.
Trade isn’t a zero-sum game. Just because another nation’s exports grow doesn’t mean your own have to fall. When we import low-cost goods from China we’re not failing, we’re benefiting–from choice, competition and low prices. Where there are potential issues between us we must work at them and deal with them.
One of the reasons why I find this whole debate around the special relationship puzzling is because it’s clear to me that the partnership is entirely natural. Yes, it always needs care and attention, but it is resilient because it is rooted in strong foundations. My grandfather worked on Wall Street, then fought alongside Americans after D-Day. My wife Sam, then pregnant with our first child, was in New York on 9/11 opening a new store she had designed and worked on for months. I worked for a business for seven years that owned Technicolor, the California-based firm which printed almost half the films that came out of Hollywood.
Every aspect of our daily lives on either side of the Atlantic owes something to each other. Each day a million people in America go to work for British companies. And a million people in Britain go to work for American companies. Teenagers in the States play music by British bands and our kids listen to rap.
As this is my first visit to America as prime minister, let me emphasize that I am unapologetically pro-America. I love this country and what it’s done for the world. But I am not some idealistic dreamer about the special relationship. I care about the depth of our partnership, not the length of our phone calls. I hope that in the coming years we can focus on the substance, not endlessly fret about the form.