In a thoughtful piece in today's Financial Times about how the anti-European impulses of David Cameron's Tories may lead to a chill with Washington, Philip Stephens writes that "[President] Obama is unsentimental about alliances." I think it goes further. I think that Obama is just plain unsentimental about most aspects of his professional life. (One senior administration who compared Obama's "synthetic intelligence" favorably with that of Bill Clinton, said Obama was one of the "coolest characters I have ever seen in that kind of job. He places an exceptional emphasis on rationality and calm analysis.")
Among those things impacted by Obama's cool rationality are all of America's international relationships ... and in particular the role of history in those relationships. While cognizant of historical context in an academic sense, Obama seems not to place much stock in old traditions be they of friendship or of enmity. The stirring shoulder to shoulder images of the Second World War, while rhetorically rolled out for suitable occasions, are not part of his life experience. This is a guy, after all, who entered high school after the Vietnam War was over and who did not begin his professional, post-law school life until after the Cold War was over. George W. Bush, by contrast, is fully 15 years older than Obama, son of a World War II veteran who was a traditional Atlanticist and cold warrior. Obama is a very different breed of cat from what we have seen before.
That's not to say he's indifferent to alliances. It's not to say he doesn't appreciate the importance of NATO or old friendships. But the impulse to engage former and current enemies, to sign on to the G20 as a replacement for the G8, to seek a different kind of relationship with Israel, to give the Cairo speech, to travel early to Africa-all these steps suggest a willingness not to be captive of the mold of his predecessors. Imagine ... right now the United States arguably has a better relationship with French leaders than with the leaders of the U.K. or Germany.
As Stephens rightly points out in the FT, as far as the U.K. goes, this trend is only likely to grow more pronounced once David Cameron takes office as he presumably will. Cameron and Obama got off to a bad start, they are from opposite sides of the ideological spectrum, and to the degree Cameron and his colleagues undercut the Lisbon Treaty and push back from the table of Europe, they will be both making life more complicated for the United States and all their allies and pursuing a very different world view from the U.S. president.
When asked by other colleagues in the diplomatic community who has the U.K. brief in the U.S. government, the current U.K. ambassador to the United States, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, has jokingly replied that he hardly knows because it doesn't seem to be a top priority for anyone. This is no doubt due to the fact that the relationship works pretty well and there are few sore spots crying out for immediate attention. But should Cameron come to power and behave as he implies he will, Sheinwald's successor could feel even more neglected and the Cameron administration is likely to get a cold shoulder that makes Gordon Brown's need for five pleas for a meeting with Obama at the U.N. General Assembly before he got one seem positively warm and inviting.
U.S.-U.K. history and cultures are such that the relationship will always be different from that we have other countries. But it seems quite possible that with an unsentimental post-modern president in the White House who seems destined to have a chilly partnership with the odds-on favorite to be the next Prime Minister of the U.K. the special relationship will be considerably less special in the future than it has been at any time in recent memory.
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