07.19.10

America's New Frenemy

As David Cameron arrives in Washington, tension over the BP mess is threatening the cozy relationship between two great allies.

Can this marriage be saved?

When British Prime Minister David Cameron and President Barack Obama meet Tuesday at the White House, they might want to bring along a family therapist, if sovereign nations can make use of such services. The long-vaunted “special relationship” between the United Kingdom and the United States has seldom been more tetchy and irritable.

They have, as the shrinks say, issues. Not just the BP mess and the Lockerbie bomber flap, but also nearly opposite economic policies—Obama calls for taxpayer-funded global stimulus while Cameron is slashing his government’s budget—and the increasingly troublesome dilemmas of Afghanistan and Iraq.

"I saw a fisherman from Louisiana on the television news, saying he used to earn $2,000 a week from his fishing business, and now he’s earning $2,000 a day working for BP," a U.K. government official said.

“There are significant strains in the Anglo-American ‘special relationship,’” says British-born historian Nile Gardiner, who directs the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “Cameron inherits from Gordon Brown a rather difficult period. Under Brown, the U.S.-U.K. alliance hit its lowest point in several decades, not least because Brown and Obama did not get on personally at all—and very little effort was made by the Obama administration to reach out to Britain.”

Notwithstanding that British voters rejected the hapless former prime minister, they are unlikely to forget that Obama seemed to go out of his way to humiliate their head of government, reportedly spurning at least five requests to meet privately with Brown during last September’s United Nations confab in New York and the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh. That was insult added to injury after Obama, during Brown’s March 2009 visit to Washington, reciprocated the prime minister’s thoughtful gifts of an ornamental pen holder made from the timbers of the Victorian anti-slave ship HMS Gannet, plus a first edition of Sir Martin Gilbert’s magisterial seven-volume Winston Churchill biography, with a rather shabby collection of DVDs that apparently couldn’t even be played on British gear.

The new prime minister, of course, is no Gordon Brown—a dour Scot with no gift for small talk. Cameron is young and charming, and on several previous meetings, he and Obama were very simpatico. “David Cameron has a very high emotional IQ,” says an American who knows both men.

But some Brits suspect that Obama just isn’t that into them. They imagine that the president nurses an ancient grudge because his Kenyan grandfather, who worked as a cook in the British colonial army after World War II, was jailed and allegedly whipped and tortured for supporting Kenyan independence. Obama’s 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father, does little to dispel this suspicion. Describing a 1988 flight to Nairobi, the future president recounts the contemptuous pontifications about Africa of his seatmate, a young Englishman. “Beside me the young Brit was snoring softly now, his glasses askew on his fin-shaped nose,” Obama wrote. “Was I angry at him? I wondered.”

Beyond these stylistic and personality-driven disconnects, the Heritage Foundation’s Gardiner ticks off a litany of substantive sore points: the “compassionate release” last year of convicted Pan Am 103 mass murderer Abdelbaset al-Megrahi from a Scottish prison (“a disaster in terms of Anglo-American relations”); the worst-ever oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, perpetrated by the corporate behemoth formerly known as British Petroleum; Obama’s harsh, market-moving talk about BP, in which 19 million British pensioners reportedly own stock; and BP and the British government’s possible role in Megrahi’s release, allegedly engineered in return for lucrative Libyan oil-drilling contracts.

Claiming a chock-full schedule, Cameron initially refused to meet with the four U.S. senators from New York and New Jersey whose states suffered the lion’s share of the Lockerbie deaths and who want to press him on the British government and BP’s involvement in the release. But upon arrival, he decided to meet with them.

A few weeks after BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded off the Louisiana coast and began polluting the Gulf, I was visiting London, and a British government official quizzed me over a friendly drink about the U.S. reaction.

“What’s going on with BP?” he asked bemusedly.

“Well,” I answered with a grin, “you haven’t done something this horrible to us since you burned down the White House.”

“That one worked to your advantage,” he joked. “You managed to rebuild it even better.” More seriously, he mused: “I must say, I saw a fisherman from Louisiana on the television news, saying he used to earn $2,000 a week from his fishing business, and now he’s earning $2,000 a day working for BP.”

I prudently changed the subject.

Georgetown University international-affairs professor Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the “special relationship” is these days more an idea than a reality—especially because it’s no longer a bipolar world dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union.

“There will always be some truth to the idea of the ‘special relationship’ in the sense that ever since the late 19th century, the United States and Great Britain have enjoyed a special affinity that is in part about history, in part about a cultural similarity, and in part about a shared ancestral background,” Kupchan says. “But I think that ‘specialness’ has been steadily diminishing.”

Kupchan adds: “The bigger structural issue is that the United States doesn’t need Europe like it used to, and Europe doesn’t need the United States like it used to, and that means that for the United States, Britain doesn’t loom as large at it has since World War II. American strategic priorities are shifting to the south and to the east, the European Union is arguably in its most serious crisis since World War II, and at a moment when the U.S. is feeling pinched on every front, it is very sensitive to the question of who is bringing what to the table.”

In the case of Britain, Kupchan argues, not as much as it once did.

Another keen observer, who asked not to be identified, says simply, “There is no special relationship anymore.”

Not surprisingly, on the eve of Cameron’s visit—for which the prime minister was flying commercial and riding Amtrak in a show of conspicuous austerity—the British Embassy’s spokesman begged to differ.

“I think the relationship changes with each generation of leadership,” said Martin Longden on Monday. “It patently is not the same kind of relationship that Roosevelt had with Churchill, or Kennedy with Macmillan, or Reagan and Thatcher, or Bush and Blair… With these 21st-century challenges, the new generation of political leaders rediscovers a relationship that has remained pretty strong—and not for reasons of sentimental feeling or history… When it comes down to it, the relationship is based on national self-interest and understanding.”

Note: This story has been updated to reflect Cameron's decision to meet with N.J. and N.Y. senators.

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.