Britain and the 'Special Relationship'

Since the end of the Cold War, London has raised the same question every time a new head of state moved into the White House: how special will the so-called special relationship be this time around? So when Barack Obama spoke to Prime Minister Gordon Brown by telephone for 15 minutes the Friday after his inauguration, it was headline news in Britain (even though he also spoke to Stephen Harper of Canada and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia that same day, and earlier in the week had chatted with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, and Israel's Ehud Olmert). Imagine, then, Brown's utter consternation in early February upon learning that the first world figure to actually shake the new president's hand was none other than Tony Blair, Brown's predecessor and longtime rival in the British political arena. The next morning the Telegraph put a photo of Obama and Blair on its front page with a caveat for the P.M.: IF YOU'RE GORDON, LOOK AWAY NOW.

What Brown and much of the commentariat are willfully ignoring in all of this is that the importance of the Anglo-American special relationship depends upon which end of the telescope you view it through. It's a big deal in Britain. But the term "special relationship" is almost entirely foreign to American ears. After all, the United States is increasingly Hispanic and increasingly wedded economically to Asia, and is bound to shift or at least broaden its longtime alliances. Aside from its friendship with Britain, the world's only superpower will naturally have a number of extraordinary bilateral relationships: with Japan and China (the two largest holders of U.S. debt), Saudi Arabia (oil) and Mexico (the single largest source of U.S. immigrants), to name just a few. It's no accident that Hillary Clinton's first trip abroad as secretary of state is not to Europe—the traditional destination—but to Asia.

This reality has only added to a British identity crisis that Blair once described as "post-empire malaise," the result of its decline as a world power over the course of the 20th century. He saw Britain's relationship with America as the way forward; Britain, he thought, could use its economic ties to the United States to strengthen its economy and maintain London's status as a world-class financial center. By partnering with Washington on the global stage, Britain could punch above its weight. Through the war in Kosovo and 9/11, Blair's strategy seemed to work. But his alliance with George Bush in Iraq backfired, and Britons were put off by what they saw as an unequal relationship in which Blair played poodle to Bush's top dog.

Despair settled on top of despair. In 2004 and 2005, after 10 nations joined the European Union, Britons became unsettled by the greatest wave of immigration in British history when more than 600,000 mostly Eastern European immigrants poured into the country. The July 7, 2005, attacks on the London transport system, carried out by homegrown radicals, delivered the grim message that terrorism was being nurtured on British soil. Now the economic crisis is taking its toll on an already rattled Britain.

The fear that the relationship with the world's biggest economy might one day fray has spurred even more hand-wringing. Before Obama's inauguration, some commentators fretted over the description in Obama's book "Dreams From My Father" of his paternal grandfather being beaten at the hands of British colonial troops in Kenya. They wondered if this would sour the president's attitude toward Britain all these years later. Brown, who may meet with Obama later this month, has tried to counter this gloom with bold assurances that London and Washington are as tight as ever. "The special relationship will be one so strong [that] no power on earth can ever drive us apart," he said recently. Now he is seeking to enlist Obama's aid in restoring financial stability, stimulating global economic growth and—somewhat grandiosely—forming some sort of dynamic duo that will save the world from its woes. "There [have] never been so many challenges that can only be met by two people working together," Brown said.

Maybe, but the last thing Britain needs is more talk about the special relationship. When Blair spoke of "post-empire malaise," he saw the need for Britain to become "as confident of its future as it once was of its past." And why not? Battered though they both are these days, the ancient City of London is the equal of Wall Street. The great English universities are still among the world's finest. The Palace of Westminster houses what is still "the mother of Parliaments." Immigration has brought a new vibrancy to all corners of British life. There's no reason why confidence should be in short supply—a fact that Brown seemed to recognize two years ago when he launched a now dormant "Britishness" campaign and spoke of setting down in writing "the values, founded in liberty, which define our citizenship and help define our country."

America has moved on. In his Inaugural Address, Obama said, "Know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity." His sole reference to Britain was the defeat of its troops by George Washington. Britain should move on, too.