Today I plan to hear President Obama’s foreign policy speech. He will deliver it in Westminster Hall, a building which has seen more than 900 years of English and British history. The struggle to control the King and impose Parliament’s will was acted out here: it was the scene of the trial of King Charles I. It was the place to try powerful advisers to monarchs who were thought to have abused their positions. The Parliamentary chamber that witnessed the great debates to establish Parliamentary democracy was destroyed by fire, whilst Westminster Hall, old home to the courts and host to great state trials has survived as a memorial to the growing pains of democracy.
The President will doutless genuflect to any British nervousness about the state of the US/UK relationship. The British in private will probably wish to show some independence of thought over the joint approach to the Middle East. The President in his early days did not control all of the details to reassure the UK he understood the long term nature of the joint actions, whilst the Prime Minister in his early days wanted to show he would be no US poodle. All this has been written up and written about too much. In practice the US and UK remain linked by common language and history, by many cross Atlantic family ties, by substantial mutual investment in each other’s countries and by their common causes through NATO.
US Presidents usually come round to the view that even though there is a large imbalance in size and power between the two countries, having the UK’s moral and mililtary support in pursuit of common world aims can be helpful. UK Prime Ministers usually take the view that they need to get on well with the world’s superpower, though occasionally they may show flashes of independence. Margaret Thatcher had a close working relationship with the US but was memorably caught telling the US not to wobble. Harold Wilson wisely stayed out of the Viet Nam war but the relationship survived that display of independence.
Today I want President and Prime Minister to rethink the past approach to the Middle East and the spread of democracy. Mr Cameron has said that you cannot impose democracy from above by bombing from 30,000 feet. In private they should agree a timetable for getting out of military commitments in Afghanistan and Libya.
Whether they call the relationship special or essential does not matter as much as the press seem to think. What they do decide on future military commitments to the Middle East matters much more. If we believe in self determination of peoples, democratic process and peace, we need to amend what we do and learn from recent wars.