David Cameron and Barack Obama said in a joint statement at the end of the president’s recent state visit to London that the relationship between our two countries is not merely special, but essential. This was a pleasantly emollient assertion, characteristic of the things statesmen say in such circumstances. But this evening I want to discuss how far it seems justified by realities, past and present, with special reference to defence, which is my own field; and what we, the British, as ever the lesser player and often suppliant, might do to strengthen our side of the affiliation. I use the word affiliation, rather than partnership, advisedly, for it seems to me that many of the difficulties and disappointments that landmark our exchanges with the United States result from exaggerated hopes of what Britain may realistically expect from its relationship with the most powerful nation on earth.
Our two countries have some cultural affinities, if rather fewer than a generation ago, and individual British and American people often like each other very much. As an Englishman, I can aspire to a degree of intimacy with American friends that is hard to match with those of some other nations. But one of the commonest errors of the British, including sometimes their prime ministers, is to imagine that Americans collectively are like us. They are not. Most are no longer Eurocentric. Tens of millions are Latinos, more than a few of whom scarcely speak English. Newer and younger Americans’ view of their own society, and of the world, is very different from ours. They have a sense of their own greatness, of their continent which holds so much that it seems unnecessary to look much or often beyond it, such as Britain perforce abandoned long ago. To be sure, the rise of China has brought upon the US, and especially its president, a new caution about the limits of the possible, and apprehension about the economic future, which were hard to imagine 30 years ago. But today America is still the world’s sole superpower; as Professor Sir Michael Howard puts it ‘the only nation able and sometimes willing to get things done’.
One of the first and hardest lessons for some British people to grasp, even those at the heart of government, is how little attention we command among most Americans, unless there chances to be a royal wedding. Michael Howard is the repository of much wisdom on matters historical and strategic. I have always been struck by something he wrote years ago about the Anglo-American wartime alliance, a period when he was a fighting soldier: ‘It is never very easy for the British to understand that a very large number of Americans, if they think about us at all, do so with various degrees of dislike and contempt…In the 1940s the Americans had some reason to regard the British as a lot of toffee-nosed bastards who oppressed half the world and had a sinister talent for getting other people to do their fighting for them’. In comprehending the wartime era, customarily cited as that in which the so-called special relationship was created, it is important to recognise how much mistrust and even antipathy persisted between the two peoples.
I will say more about this later, but for now it suffices to suggest that if most Americans are today much less wary of Britain than they were in our imperialist era, it is because we do not loom so large, and thus they think about us less. That also applies in the White House and on Capital Hill: Britain scarcely registers on the consciousness of any but a handful of congressmen and senators, save as a theme park for agreeable vacations. A British ambassador in Washington said to me some years ago: ‘One of my jobs is to break to every British minister who visits here the unwelcome news that, no, they won’t be appearing on the Today show or with Barbara Walters’.
But British governments care to the point of obsession about the United States, and its administrations’ view of us, because many things which we want can happen only with American acquiescence or support. Whenever scepticism is expressed about Anglo-American relations, prime ministers respond with some pride and indeed complacency that if anything important happens in the world, one of the few personal phone calls most US presidents make is to the tenant of Downing Street. This was so most recently, between Barack Obama and David Cameron following the killing of Osama bin Laden. One of the prime minister’s staff says: ‘China may have become the second most important country on earth, but that does not mean the President gets first on the line to president Hu, or for that matter prime minister Putin. He wants to talk to someone he knows is on his side- and that is most likely to mean us’.
This is so. If few American chief executives share real intimacy with other national leaders, it seems fair to speculate that Barack Obama feels as comfortable with David Cameron as with any foreign statesman with whom he does business. The president knows that Cameron and his government are both instinctively and fundamentally in the same camp. We want America and its rulers to prosper and to get their way in the world, as the Chinese and Russians frankly do not. But successive British prime ministers since 1941 have exposed themselves to rebuff and even humiliation when they aspired to something beyond a comfortable accommodation on specifics, seeking to influence the policies of the United States and its leadership in directions they are disinclined to take. The British and US governments often find themselves on the same side. But when days come, as they do, on which America, and especially the Congress, wants something that runs against British wishes, it is dismaying to modern prime ministers, as it was to Winston Churchill, how seldom London’s view prevails.