UK general election: Could it end 'special relationship' with US?

Americans might have a rooting interest in the UK general election. The two leading candidates for prime minister have opposite views about the importance of the US-Britain relationship.

Chris Helgren/Reuters
Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown, President Barack Obama, and Britain's Prince Charles attend a D-Day commemoration at the US military cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, on June 6, 2009. The result of Thursday's UK general election could have a profound impact on US-British relations.

Ever since Winston Churchill spoke of a “special relationship” between the US and the United Kingdom more than 60 years ago, the phrase has been used to describe relations between two countries that have stuck by each other’s side right through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But is the special relationship now dead?

The results of the UK general election Thursday are likely to be a determining factor.

If the Conservative leader David Cameron pulls off a win, look for a concerted effort at least from the eastern side of the Atlantic to revitalize a relationship that by all accounts sat stuck in the deep freeze under President Obama and Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg looks to Europe

But if the Liberal Democrats led by the surprisingly strong Nick Clegg somehow come out on top, the phrase “special relationship” is likely to be retired to the history books, alongside the unequaled ties forged in the war years of Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Mr. Clegg has made it clear that he sees Britain’s future with Europe more than with the US.

Few observers give Mr. Brown, languishing in third place in polls, much of a chance to be around to form a new government and try to melt the ice between Washington and London.

“The UK elections will have a significant impact on the special relationship,” says Nile Gardiner, an expert in US-Europe issues at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “If Cameron becomes prime minister, repairing the frayed state of the Anglo-American relationship will be a top priority.”

But will the Obama administration be interested?

Much has been said about the “bad blood” between Messers. Obama and Brown, about the rebuffed requests from Downing Street for one-on-one sit-downs between the two leaders at multilateral gatherings. In March the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee, dominated by Brown’s labor Party, was so incensed that it voted to end the use of “special relationship” to describe the US-UK ties.

But Obama hasn’t been especially close to any European leaders, experts note, so they question whether even an effort by a pro-US Cameron to warm things up would make a difference.

Mr. Gardiner thinks so. “It’s true that Obama has been especially bad at treating key allies, and the results with Britain are no exception,” he says. But he adds that issues like NATO support in Afghanistan could make for a different White House response to a pro-American British prime minister.

Obama's coolness towards Europe

Others say any British leader will have trouble overcoming what seems to be Obama’s coolness towards Europe’s leaders in general.

“The main problem facing a British leader in dealings with the White House is that Obama is the first president since World War II who is not an Atlanticist,” says Reginald Dale, a senior fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The White House is keen to see Britain remain a strong military partner in a Europe of falling defense budgets, Mr. Dale says, and he offers as a plus that a Prime Minster Cameron “would at least start with a clean sheet.” But he sees little likelihood of a warm relationship between the two leaders, given what he calls Obama’s “record of disdain” for European leaders.

And Cameron, despite his pro-American stance, would be unlikely to grovel in a quest to keep the “special relationship” alive. He certainly will not have forgotten, transatlantic experts say, that former Prime Minister Tony Blair was labeled a “poodle” and a “lap dog” in the British press over his close ties to former President George W. Bush.


If British election 2010 results trump popular vote, what next?

President Obama may be slumping at home, but he's surging in Europe

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.