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After watching ties between Britain and the United States deteriorate over the past 17 months, many Americans are hoping for a turnabout under David Cameron. A speech the conservative leader gave four years ago suggests they will be sorely disappointed. Cameron and Obama share much in common–and that means the special relationship is in deep trouble.
In 2006, Cameron delivered what amounted to a declaration of independence from America, and a surprisingly aggressive attack on U.S. foreign policy (under the guise of criticizing “neo-conservatism,” which he said had guided America since the Sept. 11 attacks). Cameron began by dutifully rejecting anti-Americanism, which he said “represents an intellectual and moral surrender.” But he quickly went on to castigate America’s approach to national security, calling it “unrealistic and simplistic,” driven by “easy sound bites” and lacking in “humility and patience.” Neo-conservatism, Cameron said, advances “a view which sees only light and darkness in the world–and which believes that one can be turned to the other as quickly as flicking a switch.”
Cameron went on tear down this straw man. He criticized America’s response to Sept. 11, arguing that “by positing a single source of terrorism–a global jihad–and opposing it with a single global response–American-backed force–we will simply fulfill our own prophecy.” This approach, he said, “can too easily have the opposite effect to the one intended: making the extremists more attractive to the uncommitted.” In other words, America’s response to Sept. 11 aided terrorist recruitment and fueled global jihad. This is essentially President Obama’s critique of the Bush administration’s approach to terrorism.
Cameron laid out his vision for a “post neo-conservative world.” It sounds a lot like Obama’s vision. He called for a “new emphasis on multilateralism,” adding “we have found in recent years, a country may act alone–but it cannot always succeed alone.” He approvingly quoted two vocal Bush critics–then-Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Joe Biden (D-Del.)–attacking America’s supposedly go-it-alone approach. He criticized Guantanamo Bay and “excessive periods of detention without trial” and warned that a “moral mission requires moral methods. Without them, we are merely war-makers.” He said of America’s efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East, “Liberty grows from the ground, it cannot be dropped from the air by an unmanned drone.” And he declared that henceforth we should work through “the United Nations . . . [which] confers the ultimate legitimacy on any multilateral action.”
What is remarkable about the speech is not just the audacity of it, but the timing. Cameron chose to deliver this searing assault on Britain’s most important ally on Sept. 11, 2006–the fifth anniversary of the worst attack on that ally’s soil. It was as if an American politician had launched a scathing attack on Britain’s response to Nazi aggression on the anniversary of the Blitz. Even those who might agree with the substance of Cameron’s remarks should recognize that delivering them on Sept. 11 was crass and profoundly disrespectful of this country.
In that speech, Cameron offered some obligatory paeans to the special relationship, but quickly declared that under his leadership Britain would no longer be “America’s unconditional associate in every endeavor.” He added, “We should be solid but not slavish in our friendship with America.” Last week William Hague, Britain’s new foreign secretary, repeated this “solid but not slavish” construct.
Note the use of the word “slavish.” It is the exact same word used by Cameron’s new ally, Liberal Democrat leader Nicholas Clegg, who declared in a campaign speech last month: “I think it’s sometimes rather embarrassing the way Conservative and Labor politicians talk in this kind of slavish way about the special relationship. If you speak to hard-nosed folks in Washington, they think it’s a good relationship, but it’s not a special relationship.” He added, “They are moving on. Why on earth don’t we?” Clegg now serves as deputy prime minister and holds the keys to power in Britain’s first coalition government since World War II.
What does all this mean for the British-American relationship? Cameron’s speech suggests the liberal American president will like the new conservative prime minister a lot better than he did Gordon Brown. The problem is that the basis of any Cameron-Obama partnership is a shared view that our relations are not so important–that the security of the world rests not on the strength of the historic alliance between the “English-speaking peoples” but rather on a “new emphasis on multilateralism” and greater coordination through the United Nations.
Of course, it was Winston Churchill who championed the creation of the United Nations. But speaking in Fulton, Mo., in 1946, Churchill also warned: “Neither the sure prevention of war, nor the continuous rise of world organization will be gained without what I have called the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples . . . a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States.”
One of Obama’s first acts as president was to return the bust of Churchill that had graced the Oval Office for the past eight years–on loan as a symbol of that special relationship.
Perhaps it is for the best that Sir Winston is no longer in the Oval Office to witness the relationship’s dissolution.
Marc A. Thiessen is a visiting fellow at AEI.
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