State visits by British prime ministers to the United States are never a particularly edifying experience. On this side of the Atlantic, they tend to perpetuate unhealthy delusions of imperial grandeur that stem essentially from Britain’s willingness to hover in the slipstream of American military power.
This vassal-like status is often obscured by nostalgic memories of World War II and D-Day, and by dollops of inane media commentary on the body language of the two leaders of the moment and how chummy and relaxed they are, how much they have in common, whether they are warm or businesslike or warm and businesslike, whether they will get on as famously as Thatcher and Reagan or the arch-plotters Blair and Bush, or what their wives look like.
More than anything else the British media and political class looks to such visits for reaffirmation that the special relationship is still special, and it is sometimes embarrassing and shaming to witness its abject and desperate need for such reassurance. Take this stunningly fatuous observation yesterday from the BBC court scribe Nick Robinson, who described how:
Last May David Cameron and Barack Obama flipped burgers together at a barbecue in the Downing Street garden. The No 10 spin doctors thought they’d never do better, but tonight they believe they have. David Cameron will become the first world leader to be welcomed aboard Airforce One by President Obama so that both men can travel to the crucial swing state of Ohio. The pin up of the global left and the leader of the British right will add the latest image to the photo album of the Special Relationship.
Gosh, will it Nick? To think that ‘the pin up of the global left’ has let our prime minister ride on the big plane. And as the Independent informs us today, this isn’t all, because
Last night’s visit to the basketball game between Mississippi Valley State University and Western Kentucky University is part of a packed programme designed to display the warmth of trans-atlantic relations, including a star-studded state dinner in the White House tonight.
Now I’m going to swoon. Because like Chrissie Hynde, we Brits may be special, but we got to have some love and attention, and if the White House didn’t give it to us then we might have to face the truly awful prospect of being just an ordinary little country like Belgium or even – God forbid – like Denmark.
Instead these visits remind us that Britain is still Great Britain, still punching above its weight and playing Greece to America’s Rome, endlessly re-living the glory days when much of the world did our bidding. And the special relationship isn’t just special for us: the world needs it too, according to a ‘joint article’ written by Obama and Cameron in the Washington Post which declares that:
The alliance between the United States and Great Britain is a partnership of the heart, bound by the history, traditions and values we share. But what makes our relationship special — a unique and essential asset — is that we join hands across so many endeavors. Put simply, we count on each other and the world counts on our alliance.
The article cites a list of achievements of this ‘essential alliance’, such as ‘dismantling al-Qaeda, breaking the Taliban’s momentum and training Afghan forces’ and ‘imposing tough sanctions on the Iranian regime for failing to meet its international obligations’ and their joint participation in ‘the mission to protect the Libyan people last year.’
These declarations were made at a time when NATO is tottering on the brink of strategic defeat in Afghanistan, when a mission to ‘protect the Libyan people’ that resulted in the loss of up to 50,000 lives is now threatening to bring about the disintegration of the Libyan state.
Its authors nevertheless reiterate British/American support for ‘ those brave citizens across the Middle East and North Africa who are demanding their universal rights‘. They promise to ‘tighten the noose around Bashar al-Assad and his cohorts’, and ‘work with the opposition and the United Nations-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan to plan for the transition that will follow Assad’s departure from power’ and all this ‘ as we redouble our efforts to save lives in Somalia.’
Faced with these aspirations and achievements, is it any wonder that the world needs us? Of course there are those who might think otherwise. Some might ask, for example, where America and Britain have acquired the right to decide what happens in Syria, Iran, Somalia or anywhere else.
Looking back on the last decade in particular, the churlish and cynical might conclude that the American/British alliance has left a trail of chaos and violent mayhem from Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya to the Pakistan tribal areas; that the attitude of both governments to the ‘Arab Spring’ has not been driven by a concern for ‘the human rights and dignity of all people’, but by an opportunistic attempt to turn the upheavals of the last year or so to their strategic advantage.
Some might question a commitment to human rights that has led both Britain and the United states to ignore abuses in some countries and even to sell weapons to the countries that carry them out, while simultaneously using human rights as a pretext for regime change in others.
One might ask whether an ‘essential alliance’ based on a mutual taste for military adventurism is essential to the world after all, and whether it is in fact harmful in the long run to the two countries concerned. On one hand Britain’s deferential role in riding shotgun provides a multilateral veneer to American military adventures such as the Iraq war, which would have been more difficult to sell to the American public without Britain’s enthusiastic participation.
At the same time, the carefully-nurtured illusion of a ‘special relationship’ between equals appeals to the arrogance of a British political elite that has never ceased to look down on the rest of the world from a great height, and whose pathetic desire to keep its seat at the big table is unaffected by its inherently subservient role within that relationship.
The result is a morbid Folie à deux ( ‘madness shared by two’) in which each partner reinforces the lies, follies and delusions of the other. But at least our PM got to ride on the big plane. And didn’t Sam Cam look good as she descended the red carpet, dressed, according to the Daily Express, ‘in a £800 black Burberry trench coat, matching black trousers by Joseph and LK Bennett heels’?
Now there’s a newspaper that understands what the special relationship is all about.