I was interviewed on the radio yesterday about the so-called Special Relationship, and the possible harm that was being done to it by President Obama’s attacks on BP. “British Petroleum”, he calls it, but it changed its name to BP years ago. And most of its staff are American, and the actual oil well was operated by an American company, and so on. It is not fair to blame Britain for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. What does President Obama think he is doing?
The answer, of course, is politics. President Obama needs someone to blame for this oil spill before it starts to be seen as his Hurricane Katrina. The British are well-known as the villains in Hollywood movies, so his team put two and two together.
My response was to ask whether there was really a Special Relationship at all. Is it in America’s interest for it to be in hock to the UK? For that’s what a Special Relationship must mean: the Americans saying to other allies that there are things that those allies would like but cannot have because the interests of the UK do not allow it. Would the Americans say such a thing to Mexico? To Canada? To Israel? To China? The notion that America would privilege the UK in such circumstances is fanciful.
It should not be surprising that this is the case. America is changing. Its primary economic relationships are with Asia and not with Europe – more trade goes across the Pacific than across the Atlantic. The centre of gravity of the American economy is shifting from the north and east to the south and west. Immigration to the United States, and thus the burgeoning family links of its population, comes from South America and Asia, not from Europe. And in military terms, Europe used to be the place where world wars started, so it required a lot of attention. Europe these days is peaceful and stable, and the main American interests now lie elsewhere.
There are objective reasons why it makes sense for America to care less about Britain. It would be odd if the Special Relationship was not changing.
What the British have to realise is that this is indeed the case. There is no world role for Britain tagging along behind America, pretending to be the Americans’ best friend. If we want a world role, we will find the right partners across the Channel, not across the Atlantic. President Obama’s rhetoric, if it helps us realise that, will be doing us a favour.