Sir David Manning, former British Ambassador to the United States coined a fantastic phrase in reference to British concern over their ‘special relationship’ with the United States.  He called it “the  ‘he loves me, he loves me not’ School of Diplomacy.”    The phrase ‘special relationship’ was uttered by Winston Churchill in 1946 at a speech in America.  He expounded on the need for a “fraternal association of English speaking peoples.”  He mentioned relationships between societies, systems and the need for continued close coordination between the US and UK  military.   Assuming the text on the NATO website  is accurate Winston Churchill, who was no longer prime minister at that point, understood perfectly that both the US and the UK had other relationships, spheres of influence and interests.  However this was 1946. With the end of  world war not even a year old and a Cold War looming he emphasized US UK military cooperation.

Since that time the phrase has been constantly dusted off for official speeches involving the two countries including and perhaps especially at the height of anti Bush/anti Americanism.  Although it is used to refer to every aspect of bilateral relations from student exchanges to business,  for the most part  the test for MPs and the media still appears to be whether Britain has been able to influence US military decisions.  This is a recurring theme in the British press.  In different ways they ask “Does the special relationship still exist? Do the Americans care what we think? Do they really see us on the same level as  – the French!  Do they even know we exist?”   Sir David is right on the money. You can see the petals floating up from the news pages.  “He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me…”  

Ambassador Manning was testifying before the Foreign Affairs committee of the House of Commons with Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the former British UN Ambassador. The two ambassadors were men on a mission. They explained that while Washington officials used the phrase “special relationship” they had deliberately avoided the term in order to eliminate sentimentality from their dealings with Americans.  So from their point of view President Obama’s perceived coldness (he and his people do not honor the phrase) is a gift.  It was easy to read between the (very long) lines of their remarks .  The words “special relationship” far from presenting them with opportunities to influence had in their opinion, constituted an obstacle for British diplomats in the US.  It was a hearty slap on the back to someone you need to greet on your way to someone else more interesting.  Lose the phrase, the British diplomats argued and you force Americans to deal with you as serious people. Many British politicians feel the same way.  They find the phrase  both inaccurate and demeaning. Those are my words.  British critics of the ‘special relationship’ say the phrase really means that  Britain is a “US poodle.” Having said that, the two ambassadors and the MPs to whom they were speaking operate in a particular world. They inhabit a place where a “US relationship” means security and defense cooperation, politics and the prestige of political influence with a superpower.  The terrain is different at home in Britain, outside of government buildings.

The British public has a more  complicated relationship with America –  as they call the United States.  They want their stars to win Oscars and Emmys, they want to go to US colleges and they want Americans to praise British colleges. Although they are concerned about house prices at home they also want to vacation and perhaps retire in Florida.  And whatever they say about the British government being “poodles,”  journalists do absolutely obsess over whether or not Prime Minister Brown was snubbed by President Obama.  The British can’t seem to live with us or without us.   The Foreign Affairs committee issued a press statement reflecting this ambiguity. Admitting that a special relationship exists, they advised that the phrase be avoided (in its historical sense) then went on to advocate more money for the Foreign Office (the better to stand toe to toe with the Americans?)  The British press gave it a typical brutal summary. “Special Relationship is Over, MPs say.  Now stop calling us America’s Poodle” then “Obama unsentimental…” announced the Guardian.

When I studied international relations I was taught that nations and governments do sometimes operate like individuals. So perhaps the ‘he loves me, he loves me not’ mentality is more pervasive than Sir David implied.  Insecure people in relationships strain toward or away from the person they do not want to lose to test the relationship or their position in it.  The British public on the whole did not care for President George W. Bush (an understatement).  On the other hand, they do mostly  like President Obama (another understatement) especially since  his healthcare victory.  Result: the Parliament voted to go to two wars with the US under Bush while with President Obama in office they are declaring that the ‘special relationship’ is dead and the phrase should not be used.  Perhaps the British government went to war with the US in part because the British public was strongly pulling away from the US.  However, this demonstration of loyalty did not produce the gratitude and reaffirmation it was seeking. On the contrary, the new Obama administration seemed aloof despite the continued commitment of British troops.  Since the British public has changed its attitude and is now very fond of the White House incumbent,  there is no danger of a permanent extrangement. So the Foreign Affairs committee can safely declare that the special relationship is dead.  I don’t blame them in a way, but then how do they characterize the facts laid before them in the beginning of the hearings before they focussed on politics and the military dimension in foreign affairs.  Facts like the US and the UK are the number one investors in each other’s countries. That 1 in 7 of top CEOs in Britain are American. That Britain is the number one destination for US students?  Most British people do not know that  American high school english departments routinely teach Shakespeare, Chaucer and Dickens. This level of cultural penetration in the US is not matched by other cultures. Is there nothing special in that? Absolutely.

In fact a US UK Higher Education Partnerships Fund was  launched in the same month as the publication of the Foreign Affairs committee report (March 2010) by Sir Nigel Sheinwald, current British Ambassador to the United States.  The headline on the ambassador’s blog? Education and the Special Relationship.

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