The Special Relationship and the foundation which dare not speak its name
As the taxing of tea and agitations for independence were gradually forgiven (if not forgotten), the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom became one of the closest and most enduring bonds in global geopolitical history. Yesterday, both President Obama and the Queen paid tribute to our standing ‘shoulder to shoulder’ through a century of appalling bloodshed: the US came to assist us in our darkest hours of need and the UK did not hesitate to offer unconditional support in the wake of the events of 11th September 2001. Churchill and Roosevelt had a close personal relationship based on trust which was pivotal to the ultimate success of the Allies in World War II. The ‘special relationship’ became virtual betrothal during the coinciding premierships of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan: he called her ‘the best man in England’; she once said he was ‘the second most important man in my life’. The Blair-Clinton years were relaxed and friendly, and the Blair-Bush era was (perhaps surprisingly) one of mutual reciprocal admiration and honour-conferring.
As Barack Obama and David Cameron make their high-fives for the media, the warm, respectful and inoffensive speeches about our long, shared history are listened to attentively. But things are different. It is hard to forget that one of the very first acts of this President was to return (rater rudely) a bust of Winston Churchill which had stood in the Oval Office as a symbol of our nations' friendship. Certainly it was ‘on loan’, but the tenure was permanent. Its abrupt return was not merely undiplomatic; it was perceived as a distinct downgrading of the special Anglo-American alliance: this President would deal with ‘Europe’ (ie the EU), not simply one entity within. Just a few months later he was singing the praises of France, absurdly declaring: “We don’t have a stronger friend and stronger ally than Nicolas Sarkozy, and the French people.” Nile Gardiner has faithfully chronicled these insults against Britain. He rightly observes: ‘...to suggest that Paris and not London is Washington’s strongest partner is simply ludicrous... such a remark is not only factually wrong but also insulting to Britain...’
More recently, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has supported Argentina’s sovereignty claim on the Falkland Islands, even referring to them as the ‘Malvinas’. On meeting with the absurd EU High Representative for Foreign Policy, Catherine Ashton, Secretary Clinton referred to the Lisbon Treaty as ‘a major milestone in our world’s history’, having previously stated: “I believe (political integration is) in Europe’s interest and I believe that is in the United States’ interest because we want a strong Europe.” And echoing the President’s absurd comments about France, Vice President Joe Biden described Brussels as the ‘capital of the free world’.
If the special relationship reached its zenith in the Thatcher-Reagan years, there is something of a nadir about the Obama-Cameron era. Yes, the high-fives are congenial and the state banquets diplomatic. But bubbling beneath the surface is a tension of barely concealed contempt. Both the Queen and the President spoke effusively of our common language and shared culture; of our combined national interests, and military and economic ties. But there is something very much deeper, and the Queen took the President back to his inaugural address and reminded him of his references to a United States constructed on the values of honesty, hard work, courage, fair play, tolerance, curiosity loyalty and patriotism. She ventured that these are the values which underscore the life of the United Kingdom also.
It is a little disappointing that neither ‘leader of the free world’ dared to mention the fons et origo of these values: the Christian faith. The United States is secular by law, yet they have a President who openly talks of ‘one nation under God’ and calls his nation to prayer every year. The United Kingdom is Protestant Christian by law, but none dare mention this fact for fear of causing offence. And when the Prime Minister does dare to invoke the name of Jesus, even professing believers berate him for his ‘ludicrous and offensive’ remarks. No wonder the temptation is not to 'do God'.
A few days ago, Pope Benedict XVI declared (unashamedly) that Europe must go deeper than mere matters of trade and economics. Taking a favoured theme of John Paul II, he reminded his audience that the Christian faith is the spiritual foundation of the continent: as Europe moves toward political unity, we will fare better if those Christian roots are kept in mind. He said:
"Europeans are called to commit themselves to create conditions of a profound cohesion and an effective collaboration between nations. To build the new Europe on solid bases it is not enough to appeal solely to economic interests, but, rather, it is necessary to begin from authentic values, which have their foundation in the universal moral law inscribed in every man's heart."While Roman Catholic social doctrine and interventionist statism have become the pervasive religious and economic philosophies on the Continent, the UK and the US share a distinct Christian foundation which might be summarised as consisting of those values articulated by both President Obama and the Queen: honesty, hard work, courage, fair play, tolerance, curiosity loyalty and patriotism. The ‘Protestant work ethic’ encourages individual responsibility and unashamedly exalts the type of social capitalism that can only be achieved through the nation state, accountability, and democracy. Of course, there are tensions between the market and morality, and between the citizen and the state. But David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is as much about caring for widows and orphans, feeding the starving, and clothing the naked as any dimension of Catholic social teaching.
The key to the enduring success of the Anglo-American special relationship is that it is built upon the rock of Christianity. These two great nations know, somewhere deep down, that our souls are united by a commitment to liberty and dedication to truth; that earthly politics is fleeting; and that ultimate salvation lies only in the stark offence of the cross, under which the President, Prime Minister and Queen mean no more than the poor man at his gate.