Time to restart the 'special relationship'

The British elections today provide the Obama administration with an opportunity to fix what can be charitably described as its clumsy handling of Anglo-American relations. Although Barack Obama campaigned promising to respect and listen to America's traditional allies, as president he has been cool toward many of them. This is most evident with Britain, where, from my perspective as an American in the U.K., the Anglo-American relationship appears to be on life support.

Since taking office, President Obama and his team repeatedly snubbed Prime Minister Gordon Brown, rejecting five separate requests for one-on-one meetings at the U.N. and G-20 summits and siding with Argentina in recent Falkland Island disputes. After Mr. Brown's March 2009 visit to Washington, a State Department official even declared: "There's nothing special about Britain. You're just the same as the other 190 countries in the world."


Mr. Obama is often described as a "game changer," but in terms of the Anglo-American relationship he is poised to change the game in a very negative way. In March, the Obama administration's coldness toward Britain led the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee to call for an end to the use of the phrase "special relationship" (coined by Winston Churchill) to describe Anglo-American relations. Having seen Tony Blair come to domestic ruin due to his closeness with George W. Bush and witnessed Gordon Brown's repeated humiliation, the next generation of Labor Party leaders may well conclude that both men's strong pro-American orientation was a mistake.

Across the aisle, David Cameron has suppressed anti-American elements of the Conservative Party to put the "special relationship" at the core of his national security policy. However, should his effort founder on the rocks of the Obama administration's indifference, don't expect Tories to pick up the Anglo-American banner anytime soon. Meanwhile, Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats already look to the European Union, rather than the U.S., as Britain's primary foreign policy partner.


Mr. Obama is hardly the first president to come into office with an insufficient appreciation of the Anglo-American relationship. However, American presidents soon discover that not only does the U.S. share more common ground with Britain on global affairs than with any other country in the world, the U.K. is the partner that can and will actually provide tangible assistance. For example, with 9,500 troops on the front lines in Afghanistan — more than France and Germany combined — the U.K. is the second-largest troop contributor after the U.S. Since 2001, Britain has expended considerable blood and treasure in a conflict deeply unpopular at home to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with America.

To succeed in the world, American presidents need foreign partners, but so far Mr. Obama has singularly failed to cultivate them. In contrast, strong Anglo-American partnerships have been central to a host of consequential presidencies: FDR-Churchill, Reagan-Thatcher, Clinton-Blair, Bush-Blair. Fortunately, the administration has an opportunity to push the "reset button" on its inept handling of U.S.-UK ties.

First, it should capitalize on today's election in the U.K. to engage the next British prime minister. An invitation for an early and high-profile trip to Washington, one of both substantive and symbolic importance, should be a priority.

Second, the administration should recognize Britain's sacrifices in Afghanistan by promoting its leadership in NATO. It is absurd that French and German generals lead three of the alliance's five major commands, while British generals lead none.

Third, with regard to the Falklands — a foreign policy issue of concern to the U.K. — the United States should endorse the British view that self-determination by the islanders is the only rightful way to adjudicate competing claims to sovereignty.

Finally, the administration should push for rapid ratification of the U.S.-U.K. Defense Trade Cooperation Treaty, which has languished in the Senate since June 2007. This agreement facilitates the sharing of military hardware and increases interoperability with a country that has fought alongside the United States in almost every major conflict since World War I.

To deal with the global challenges facing the United States, America needs like-minded friends. It is time to shed cool detachment and develop a personal relationship with the next British prime minister before America's closest global partner decides to bring a 60-year diplomatic chapter to a close.

Walter Ladwig is a doctoral candidate in international relations at Merton College, Oxford, and a former predoctoral fellow of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. His e-mail is