Obama in London: Ping-pong diplomacy and pomp bolster 'special relationship'

President Obama, on a three-day state visit to London, is stressing what he and Prime Minister Cameron call an 'essential relationship' between the UK and the US.

Larry Downing/Reuters
Students watch as US President Barack Obama celebrates with British Prime Minister David Cameron as they play table tennis against students at the Globe Academy in London, on May 24.

The focus as President Obama starts his three-day state visit to Britain today is strengthening what's long been termed the "special relationship."

To many in Britain, the relationship is no longer as special as they might hope. As the historian Niall Ferguson said this morning in an interview on BBC Radio 4, “The British think they’re in a special relationship, but the Americans have quite a few special relationships and I don't think that we’re the most special.”

The need to stress the close bonds between the US and the UK is partly an admission of the trickier relationships the US has with the rest of Europe right now and partly a nod to British support in Afghanistan.

But the relationship is hardly in danger, according to Alexis Crow of the London think tank Chatham House. “Ireland, the UK, and Poland are steadfast allies for the US so this is a step into shallow water for him,” she says. “There’s so much publicity here and back in the US and if you’re looking ahead to 2012, this kind of coverage plays well to the east coast voters and well-educated voters. But at the same time he has made it clear his No. 1 priority is the economy.”

Obama is sometimes seen here as the least Anglophile of recent presidents. But he remains hugely popular – and appears bent on fortifying the foundation on which the two countries stand. Writing jointly with Prime Minister David Cameron in the Times, Obama states the bond between the US and the UK is not just a special relationship but “an essential relationship – for us and for the world.”

In the same article, Obama and Mr. Cameron refer to the relationship between former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former President Ronald Reagan, and how their partnership helped end the cold war. They suggest the same links between the US and the UK today can make a similar contribution to peace and prosperity around the world.

But, suggests Ms. Crow, the world has moved on and the relationship between the two nations with it.

“It’s a much more complex picture today for Washington as is seeks to choose allies,” she says. “For the last 70 years, it’s automatically looked to its NATO allies as default allies, but now it’s going to have be more flexible as it looks to manage security risks collectively around the world.”

In the long run, she adds, the UK will not necessarily be the default ally of the US.

That said, Obama clearly has a great personal rapport with Cameron, with whom he teamed up to challenge students at London's Globe Academy to a ping-pong match. His relationship with the queen is equally comfortable. So for now, at least, it’s all sweetness and smiles, as the president and his wife, Michelle, enjoy all the pomp and pageantry a state visit to the UK entails.

That included a 41-gun salute this morning when the Obamas were welcomed by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace, where the Obamas will stay for the next two nights. Obama and former President Bush are the only two presidents to have been honored with a full state visit during her reign.

After meeting the recently married Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the president and his wife visited Westminster Abbey. Tonight, the queen hosts a state banquet at the palace in their honor, before Obama addresses the houses of Parliament tomorrow.

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