On Obama in Dublin and London and special relationships

What do you suppose “equality” means in relations between States?  Last week much was made of the newfound equality between the UK and Ireland. But this week, if anybody claimed equality between the UK and US, they’d be laughed out of court. Is this a case of double standards?  Part of the answer lies in our old friend “parity of esteem.”  Nobody in their right mind can believe there can be any innate superiority of an Irish over a British identity or vice versa or indeed an American one. At its best, our assertion of equality removes old oppressions and their corresponding victimhood and in a spirit of good relations and good manners requires us all to stop pretending that only one set of allegiances exists. That was why the Queen at the Garden of Remembrance was so powerful.

Where the relationship is less claustrophobic, the calculations are different. Nobody pretends that the Irish –American relationship these days is much more than a particularly popular stall in the American theme park. Nobody would claim that equality exists between the US and the UK since about 1943, even though Britain and America are each other’s biggest private investors.  But a lonely and perhaps declining superpower still seems to need its oldest bestest friend. This week the US harks back to the Reagan- Thatcher relationship and” victory” in the Cold War, as their successors promote Libyan regime change ( let’s be honest)  and the dangerous  uncertainties of the wider Arab spring.

Leveling up is apparent in the rituals of the relationship in this eloquent joint description of the relationship by Obama and Cameron in the Times today. Whether there is much substance behind it is being obsessively debated in the news channels right now.

The Cold War reached this conclusion because of the actions of many brave individuals and many strong nations, but we saw how the bond between our two countries — and our two leaders at the time — proved such a vital catalyst for change. It reminded us that when the United States and Britain stand together, our people and people around the world can become more secure and more prosperous.

And that is the key to our relationship. Yes, it is founded on a deep emotional connection, by sentiment and ties of people and culture. But the reason it thrives, the reason why this is such a natural partnership, is because it advances our common interests and shared values. It is a perfect alignment of what we both need and what we both believe. And the reason it remains strong is because it delivers time and again. Ours is not just a special relationship, it is an essential relationship — for us and for the world

Not everything is about realpolitik or a peace process. Aspects of Obama’s travels are worth noticing.  While the  imperial progress of a US President looks overblown, the needs of security since the bin Laden killing are probably real enough. But why the contrast in just two days? In Ireland, we saw the old campaigning Obama exposed before the cheering crowds, such a contrast with the Queen in Dublin last week or Obama in London today. No question of a leisurely coach ride up the Mall. Is this because the secret service believe that al Qaida wouldn’t dare shoot him on Dublin’s College Green?

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

  • SK

    “Special Relationship”-I remember someone in a recent BBC drama remarking that only Ireland and Israel can use that particular phrase when describing their link with the US. Ed West has suggested the same thing in his Telegraph blog, citing the strong familial ties that bind this island and the United States. The phrase ‘special relationship’ is not widely used in Ireland, because it doesn’t really need to be.

    People tend to cast a cynical eye on visits such as the one we saw yesterday, suggesting that they only ever come about when there’s an American election looming- and those people are almost certainly correct. But the fact that a president feels compelled to visit this tiny island in order to ingratiate himself to tens of millions of his own countrymen only serves to illustrate that Ireland does indeed fall under the ‘special relationship’ bracket.

    These days when the UK invokes the “special relationship” mantra, it’s almost as if they’re trying to convince themselves that it still means something. Military Alliance? Yep. Marriage of convenience? Certainly. But is there anything more?

  • Brian Walker

    I think myself you’re talkiing apples and pears. Britain is supposed to be more of a solution than a problem. It’s good to share problems with a friend ( particularly when they agree with you). The friend doesn’t take up too much of your time when you feel you have to deal with Middle East ferment, Indo – Pak nuclear security and jihad, the scale of US debt to China, immigration from south of the Rio Grande etc.

    It’s only natural to share problems with a country whose interests harmonise with your own.and who is not a serious competitor. Remember though the role of the City in world trade and the scale fo trade between UK and US.

    There’s always the French of course but who can rely on them? Or South Korea, Indonesia, Brazil?

  • Obama stumbles [youtube]

    Perhaps nerves got the better of him.