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As he prepares to meet Obama, Cameron defends the special relationship. Good for him.

By Paul Goodman

Cameron and Obama David Cameron is a very English Englishman who - though a highly intelligent man - often displays the national trait of distrusting abstract ideas over common sense.  He did so yesterday in his speech on the Big Society.  It doesn't matter what it's called, he seemed to say: what matters is that it works.  And he does so again today, in an article in the Wall Street Journal, as he prepares to meet President Obama.  The Prime Minister takes pot-shots at three groups of critics of the special relationship - those who see America as an "evil empire"; those who think it's a good country, but that Britain no longer matters to it, and those who "over-analyze the atmospherics around the relationship".  The partnership is "entirely natural".

But if our relations with the United States are unproblematic, why write about them in this way - a touch defensively, particularly on the last point?  (It's never wise to show that media criticism's getting to you.)  Not, surely, because of immediate anxieties over the timing and manner of troop withdrawals from Afghanistan - William Hague's in Kabul today - the scandalous release of the Lockerbie bomber, the role of BP or, as Cameron boldly notes in his Wall Street Journal piece, disagreements over free trade.  Rather, because the views at which he takes a tilt have a point.  America's been looking west to Asia at least since Nixon went to China.  When it glances east, it's often at the European Union: remember Kissinger complaining: "Who do I call if I want to call Europe?" (or words to that effect.)

Britain, in the meanwhile, isn't the second or even first power of the democratic world, as it was in the early 1940s - standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States on relatively equal terms.  There's even a school of historical thinking, represented most prominently by John Charmley, which challenges that picture, and paints America as a traditional foe, not a friend - extracting tough terms from Churchill on lend-lease, and working to dismantle the British Empire.  They'd say that long-term strategic differences help to explain, Obama's lack of interest in Europe generally and Britain in particular, on the one hand, and the Prime Minister's policy shift towards China, Brazil and - especially - India, on the other.

There's truth in this description of Cameron's outlook.  Blair's relationship with Bush, and its consequences, has made the Tory leadership very wary of America - a trait that would probably mark relations even with a President with a better feel for Britain.  Expect Downing Street to make a big, big noise about the importance of India next week, when the Prime Minister visits it with a group of senior Ministers.  He'll be anxious not to alienate Pakistan in so doing - which helps explains why, while he's meeting Obama today, Sayeeda Warsi's making a goodwill tour of that country.  We can expect Cameron to press the American President over the timing of troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and push the case for free trade.

In Opposition, the Conservative leader needed Obama, in a certain sense.  He wanted to present himself as a British equivalent - pledging optimistic change and youthful leadership.  In Government, divergences between the two governments are bound to emerge.  But while logic may knock the special relationship, and even hold that it doesn't exist, intuition says something else.  The Prime Minister makes much in his article of economic and cultural bonds.  There's also a common reflex in favour of democracy, open societies, the freedom of the individual - a sense that the state should be the servant of its citizens, not their master.  Other countries talk a good game on Afghanistan.  Britain's been one of the few to grasp - whatever the huge flaws in the current strategy - that the Islamist threat can't just be wished away.  The specialness of Britain and America's mutual bond is as impossible to extinguish as it is to define.


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