Once the fog of the election campaign has cleared, Britain’s prime minister will unearth, among a thick pile of briefing papers, a note on the state of the nation’s ties with the US. He will take a telephone call from the White House congratulating him on his victory. The message that will go out from 10 Downing Street has already been scripted: all is warm and well in this vital relationship.
This will be true in so far as it goes. That the US is Britain’s most important ally is common political ground, even if Nick Clegg, the leader of the third-party Liberal Democrats baulks at the default Atlanticism of the Establishment. Yet the official view tells only half the story. Strong as they are, the ties that bind are loosening.
The prime ministerial briefing will be the same in substance regardless of the election outcome; though if, as the polls suggest, the Conservatives’ David Cameron gets the job, he can expect a somewhat thicker dossier than the incumbent Gordon Brown.
Lord Palmerston, the 19th-century British statesman, famously observed that Britain had no permanent allies, only permanent interests. His view has been modified with the loss of empire. Governments come and go, I once heard a senior diplomat remark, but the national interest is a constant; and, for all the periodic squalls, a close friendship with the US is deemed essential to the pursuit of that interest.
The political personalities can make a difference, of course. Everyone agrees that the balmy (some would say baleful) days of Reagan-Thatcher, Clinton-Blair and Bush-Blair have passed. Nostalgia does not play in Barack Obama’s White House. One of the curiosities of the present state of the Euro-Atlantic community is that even as the US president’s world view has moved closer to Europe’s – he is a multilateralist pursuing, among other things, peace in the Middle East and nuclear disarmament – personal relationships have cooled.
Whatever the chemistry, Whitehall still sees the alliance as the fulcrum of Britain’s security. I was reminded of this recently when I caught illicit sight of one of the papers circulating in advance of the election.
It was one of life’s harsh truths, the author began in the wearily indulgent tone beloved of Britain’s ruling class, that officialdom was forever measuring the weather over the Atlantic – and invariably reaching the same conclusion.
Listing the pluses and minuses of the transatlantic bargain, he thought no harm need be done by taking a fresh look – as long as the terms of the exercise were clear: "This should be the traditional policy review, identifying alternatives, but in the final analysis sticking to the status quo. And our soul-searching should be done very much in private.”
Anyone acquainted with Yes Minister – the BBC’s brilliant television satire on the eternal effort of Britain’s mandarins to house-train their political masters – will know the sentiment: reviews are fine as long as they do not change things.
All this said, the paper’s conclusions are hard to gainsay. Britain is the net beneficiary. For the US president, the alliance is important but, ultimately, optional. There is more at stake for the occupant of Downing Street.
Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe still shelters under the US security umbrella. The US presence – embedded in Nato – is essential reassurance against an assertive Russia. It serves as guarantor of European cohesion – notably, but not exclusively, in the Balkans. Washington provides critical intelligence about terrorism, and fills yawning technological gaps in Europe’s defences. In Britain’s case, it also supplies a strategic nuclear deterrent.
Many (myself included) had hoped that this dependence would lessen over time: that Europeans would develop capabilities sufficient to maintain peace on their own continent. The reality is that the European Union has failed even to produce a common energy policy.
For Britain, the role of the junior partner is nonetheless uncomfortable, sometimes demeaning. It has been so for the half-a-century since Suez shredded any remaining great power pretensions. So when a cross-party group of MPs recently proposed to end talk of the "special relationship” they were widely cheered.
As it happens, the MPs did not want a dilution of the substance of the alliance. But anything that seems to put distance between London and Washington wins easy applause from those who saw Tony Blair’s support for the Iraq war as the price of British subservience.
In truth, the UK national interest reaches beyond the specifics of bilateral ties. As an open, globally minded, medium-sized power, Britain depends for its security and prosperity on a stable, rules-based international system. Such a system requires a guarantor. When I hear people say they are fed up with Washington throwing its weight around, I wonder whom they have in mind to assume the role of global policeman: Russia, China, India?
So why then are things likely to change? Mostly because Britain is likely to have less to offer as far as the Americans are concerned.
The point was well made recently by Eric Edelman, a senior official in the last US administration. Among the many ingredients of the relationship, Edelman observed, the one most valued by successive presidents has been a willingness to wage war alongside the US.
But Britain is losing its appetite for foreign adventures; the dire condition of the public finances promises deep cuts in an already over-stretched defence budget. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have turned the public mood against liberal interventionism. Brown has been a reluctant warrior; Cameron has said he wants to be a domestic policy prime minister.
For all sorts of reasons, economic and cultural as well as strategic, Britain will remain a useful ally to Washington. Over time, though, the relationship will indeed become less special. As it happens, I agree with Clegg that British prime ministers should devote much more time and energy to the exercise of leadership in Europe. Like Australia and France, Britain should be open when it disagrees with Washington. But as a Brit who spends quite a lot of time crossing the Atlantic, it does occur to me that we really do need them more than they need us.