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Despite rumors of its demise, the US-UK special relationship is alive, say experts

David Cameron has repeatedly called for a British foreign policy that is more independent from the US. But during his first official White House trip, expect both leaders to stress the special bond between their nations.

Presidential contender Barack Obama talking with Britain's Conservative party leader David Cameron outside the Houses of Parliament in London in July 2008

Before they became leaders of their countries, David Cameron met Barack Obama in London

When the leader of Britain's Conservative Party, David Cameron, in a 2006 speech in Washington, criticised his country's "slavish" relationship with the US, he ruffled some feathers. Baroness Thatcher, the former prime minister and conservative icon, who happened to be in the US at the time as well, issued a rebuke through the White House, reiterating that Britain stood by the US "in the front line against Islamist fanatics who hate our beliefs, our liberties and our citizens."

Four years later, David Cameron has moved into Number 10 Downing Street and on Tuesday will visit President Barack Obama for the first time officially in the White House. And while Prime Minister Cameron hasn't repeated the word slavish to characterize the relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States, just before leaving for the US he reiterated the inequality of the British-American relationship:

"We should always be conscious of the fact that we're the junior partner in this relationship and America is a Pacific power as well as an Atlantic power."

Cooler approach

Instead of focusing too much on the US, Cameron wants to develop deeper ties with other countries; for example, he wants to forge a new special relationship with India.

Washington for its part has reacted coolly to Cameron's verbal recalibration of transatlantic ties. Barack Obama, unlike many of his predecessors, is considered to have no special fondness towards Britain, and according to media reports was rather put off by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown's continued efforts to score 'face time' with him. In any case, Obama is dealing with so many pressing issues, that the nature of the relationship with Britain probably doesn't rank very high on his priority list.

But while Cameron and Obama try to play down its importance, the so-called special relationship is, in fact, alive and well.

"The special relationship is a funny term," says Klaus Larres, an expert on British and US foreign policy, currently a visiting professor at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. "Every prime minister and every president confirms that this special relationship does exist, but at the same time the media usually say that there is no special relationship left."

Larres contends that there is indeed something like a special relationship between Britain and the United States that is independent of the leaders currently in power.

Security cooperation

US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair finish a press conference following their overnight war summit at Camp David in 2003

David Cameron criticised the relationship Tony Blair developed with George W. Bush

"And that usually refers to the defense cooperation, particularly to intelligence cooperation", says Larres. "One really has to say that the exchange and information about intelligence between the two countries is probably as close as with no other country. So in that respect the special relationship does exist."

Michael Williams, an expert in transatlantic relations at Royal Holloway College, University of London, agrees: "The special relationship as it relates to the close political, military and intelligence cooperation between the UK and the US is undoubtedly just as strong under Obama and Cameron as it was under Thatcher and Reagan."

For Williams, Cameron's remarks about not being 'slavish' to the US and the importance of developing closer ties with other nations "were largely political pandering". Of course, London needs to built stronger ties with other countries, he adds. "But to believe for example that the UK and India can develop the same sort of closeness in their relationship as the US and the UK is a bit of a stretch."

So while the special relationship is real, it shouldn't be mistaken for a blissful consensus on global issues. In fact there are often quite serious differences between London and Washington on major topics. And those differences could even increase in the future, says Larres. "There are policy areas where both men have to differ because their countries have to take different positions in the world."

Anglo-American tiff

The most recent rift between the White House and Downing Street was over BP, played out in public and which, depending on developments in the Gulf of Mexico,may even continue.

A sign saying Damn BP! God bless America! on a Louisiana highway in May 2010

The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has caused some tensions between the US and the UK

"Cameron was seriously annoyed when Obama for example did not refer to BP in one press remark", says Larres, "but used the old term British Petroleum, which of course clearly puts the ball in the court of the British and the responsibility for the whole mess not just in the court of the company, but on Britain as a country."

There are other issues for potential future clashes between the US and the UK. One could be Britain's strong austerity measures which Washington views as counterproductive. Another could be Afghanistan where the US urgently needs a war-weary Britain to stay on as its most important ally.

But despite some possible disagreements and efforts to rebalance and modernize their transatlantic ties, the experts don't expect David Cameron and Barack Obama to discard the special relationship anytime soon because it simply isn't in their interest. So somewhere in their communique, after the president and the prime minister's three hour meeting on Tuesday, we can be sure to find the phrase 'special relationship' once again.

Author: Michael Knigge

Editor: Susan Houlton

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