Deep beneath Queen Elizabeth II’s treasury building, in the heart of London’s government district, there is a small, dusty room with an “occupied/unoccupied” door indicator like those found on airplane lavatories. To the very few wartime visitors to Winston Churchill’s bunker, this “Transatlantic Telephone Room,” as it is now known, was deceptively called the prime minister’s loo. That was enough to keep most people out, permitting Churchill to speak freely and secretly to the president of the United States. In this three-foot by five-foot space, the so-called “special relationship” between Britain and the United States was born.
In the ensuing 60 years, from Normandy and North Africa to Iraq and Afghanistan, that wartime relationship has evolved into the closest political, military and diplomatic alliance in history. As James Wither of the European Center for Security Studies has noted, while both countries maintain close relations with several powers, the level of cooperation between the United States and Britain is without parallel: joint military planning and operations, shared nuclear weapons technology and mutual intelligence gathering are among many coordinated initiatives.
It was no coincidence, then, that the first telephone call David Cameron received upon becoming prime minister in May was from President Barack Obama. Within an hour of his arrival at 10 Downing Street, the new prime minister was told that the United States has “no closer friend and ally than the United Kingdom.” Mr. Obama later said he had also “reaffirmed the extraordinary special relationship between the United States and Great Britain, one that outlasts any individual party, any individual leader. It is built up over centuries and it’s not going to go away.” “Centuries” is probably pushing it (since the United States has gone to war with Britain twice in the last two-and-a-half centuries), but one gets the point.
Still, one cannot help but think that all this talk about the special relationship is for the benefit of Britain’s political classes—that the special relationship means more to the junior partner than to the senior one. Such is the nature of most partnerships. That the United States could get along without Britain’s help is a debatable question, but it is obvious that Britain could not exercise its disproportionate influence in global politics without its close ties to Washington. Its close U.S. ties and permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council give Britain “the ability to hit above its weight” in the diplomatic ring, writes Frederick S. Kempe of the Atlantic Council. Accordingly, every major political party expresses its belief in the special relationship and every British government attends to it.
One can expect much the same from the new government, yet a few new variables have been added to the equation. The British budget deficit, now approaching a Greece-like proportion of gross domestic product, is squeezing public spending, and the defense budget will likely be the first casualty. As Mr. Wither has noted, “further reductions in Britain’s military capabilities are likely to erode the perceived value of the partnership.” This is the first time since World War II that Britain has been governed by a coalition. While the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats share a stated commitment to the special relationship, they differ sharply over foreign policy. The Liberal Democrats opposed the war in Iraq and have called on the government to scrap a replacement for the Trident nuclear deterrent, though they have now promised to sit on their hands should it come to a vote. The Liberal Democrats are also much more sympathetic to Europe than are the Conservatives, much more willing to see the good that Brussels may be up to.
The Lib-Dems, of course, are themselves a junior partner. David Cameron and the new Conservative foreign secretary, William Hague, will largely set the foreign policy agenda. Both men were clear about their priorities during the campaign: a renewed emphasis on the Transatlantic relationship and its influence in NATO and a European strategy that puts the brakes on any further surrender of British sovereignty. Yet the government is also hedging its bets in the event that the special relationship becomes markedly less special. David Cameron once said, “For too long, politics in this country has been obsessed with Europe and America.” He is now talking about reaching out to the so-called “ignored powers,” according to Kempe, “including the Gulf, Latin America, and North Africa.” There is now talk of a new special relationship with India.
The coalition government will also be up against a widespread perception among Britons that the Labour government was too cozy with the United States. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader and new deputy prime minister, summed it up best when he said that “we still too readily put ourselves in a position of unthinking subservience to American interests.” Most Britons think Tony Blair made the British bulldog look too much like America’s poodle. That’s hardly an original insult in British politics, but it reveals the tension at the heart of the special relationship: How does Britain maintain its independence, its global prestige and influence, its loyalty to the new Europe, its economic and political ties to the world’s emerging powers and, at the same time, its unparalleled relationship with the United States? It is not obvious. Perhaps even Churchill might have found that task a bit daunting.