Saturday, September 26, 2009

Britain & America: Age of Terrific Relationship

The news that overshadows any announcements made in the G20 this week is that Obama 'snubbed' Gordon Brown. The British media went on an overdrive on the leak that while Downing Street wanted an one-on-one with the President on the sidelines of the UN meet or the G20, no such meeting could be organized. Gordon Brown had to be satisfied with a walk and talk discussion with President Obama in the kitchen of the UN, though he had a 'substantial discussion', following the Downing Street communique. The British media obviously did not like this: President Obama failed to call Gordon Brown immediately after taking office, he landed up in London a few months later and gifted the Prime Minister a set of DVDs which did not run because of the wrong region coding and finally this! President Obama does not seem to have any time for the 'special relationship' that the British assume that they enjoy, and he is making it way too obvious for the British tastes. What is going on?

The reactions to the ongoing gossip have been varied. Both Downing Street and White House dismissed this as utter rubbish - they both said that the President and Prime Minister keeps talking on a regular basis, and enjoy a 'terrific' relationship. A section of the media, including the Talking Politics blogger Ian Dunt, asserted that this probably is the end of the 'special relationship', which is indeed a good news for Britain, because they always had to pay the body price in a series of unjust wars. His piece was full of injured pride and a hope in denial, he said possibly this would not continue and David Cameron and Obama's successors will make it up. Mark Mardell, the BBC editor in North America, pointed out that the special relationship may indeed be over, though he did not see any reason for losing sleep over it. He pointed out that President Obama has the connections with the Pacific, being born in Hawaii and grown up in Indonesia, and he sees this as the principal theatre of American foreign engagement under his watch. Britain, though important and friendly, is no longer any more special in his world view than Russia or China, the 'runners up' of the global super-power race.

The High street view is that the Special Relationship with America gets Britain nothing, except for being the sacrificial lamb in different unjust wars across the globe. This is the view Ian Dunt espoused, and opined that Britain is better without the burden of the special relationship anyway. This is a rather ungrateful view, given that thousands of American youngsters fought in Europe in two world wars to protect the British sovereignty and empire. If nothing, Britain owes America one.

We also have to remember that the Cold War was a largely British construct - a brilliant one, complete with the Churchillian imagery of an iron curtain which materialized in the form of a real wall in the middle of Berlin eventually - which kept Americans committed to Europe, and American teenagers kept dying in various theatres protecting the old imperial property. Americans, seen across the world as the beacons of liberty and democracy, lost the plot to the British world view, which assumed the intellectual leadership of the world.

The 'Special Relationship' was also an essentially British construct. Many in Britain got offended when President Obama called France 'our oldest and closest ally' - somehow the Bush-Blair era convinced many that honour should go to Britain, forgetting the fact that it was France which supplied George Washington his arms and know-how, as well as political and moral support, against the red coats. Successive British administrations actively encouraged Americans to stay out of the world politics, and somewhat settled for a division of the world, leaving the Latin America to the Americans when they became too powerful.

The Special Relationship is a somewhat Churchillian construct. I am not suggesting a conspiracy theory, but this idea of Anglophone bonding sounds too old European to have come from the new world. The roots of this thinking goes back to the days of imperial rivalry in Europe, and came to the fore at the time of the face-off between the old and new European powers during the last century. Churchill's abiding faith in America, while the American ambassador in Britain at the time, Joe Kennedy, had little time for such sentiments except the special relationship he had with Churchill's daughter-in-law, had been severely tasted during the battle of Britain. However, in the end, he prevailed, possibly because the alternatives were far more scary for the American administration, and America came to war to fight on the side of Old Europe. The spirit of the special relationship, therefore, was aptly summed up by Churchill: One can always trust the Americans to do the right thing, once all the other options have been exhausted.

So, the world we lived in so far was constructed on a special understanding. The Americans long decided that they will supply the money and the materials to fight wars of 'freedom' as long as other nations supply the blood. The British added themselves into the equation volunteering to provide the ideas, a sort of old brotherly wisdom to its more dynamic and powerful sibling. What is being tested, since George Bush's ill-fated wars which exposed this world view far too elaborately and his naive faith in unregulated markets which came unstuck at the same time, is indeed the strength of that world view. President Obama's CHANGE is suddenly looking promising - he seems intent on winning the moral and intellectual leadership of the world for the Americans.

So, I would see more substance than style, more realism than the emotional bonding with the Pacific, in President Obama's current set of priorities. He has already expressed his sense of history in unconventional terms. He is an African-American leading the democrats, the party of the civil war, who idolizes Abraham Lincoln, a republican. So, the President does not seem to be contented to follow stereotypes and is set to acknowledge that we live in a different world, which needs to be governed with a different set of principles. And, by so doing, he is tearing down the principles international relationships have been governed since the days of Metternich, and engaging vigorously with the world with the intent and the focus needed to deal with the world.

I think it is fair to assume then that we are now entering an age of 'terrific' relationships than the special relationship. The old thoughts of an anglosphere and a eurocenric world may finally be passe, and a new age is set to begin. It will further quicken when the vacuous David Cameron takes over from the brooding Gordon Brown, further handing over the intellectual leadership to President Obama, a serious, thoughtful and brave man.

The end of a Special Relationship, that way, may mark the beginning of a truly global world.

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