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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
09LONDON348 2009-02-09 15:03 2010-12-03 23:11 CONFIDENTIAL//NOFORN Embassy London
DE RUEHLO #0348/01 0401508
P 091508Z FEB 09
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 04 LONDON 000348 


EO 12958 DECL: 02/06/2019 


Classified By: Charge Richard LeBaron for reasons 1.4(b/d).

1. (C/NF) Summary. Secretary Clinton’s public praise for the U.S.-UK special relationship following her February 3 meeting with Foreign Secretary Miliband, coming on the heels of the President’s January 26 phone call with Prime Minister Brown, has gone a long way to calm what has been a stronger than usual outbreak of British political and media anxiety about the future of U.S.-UK relations. The atmospherics surrounding the relationship with the United States are always under intense scrutiny in Britain, but UK media, pundits, and parliamentarians have openly worried over the last several months that the Obama administration might downplay relations with the Brown Government because of a “perfect storm” of factors -- the Brown Government’s support for Bush administration foreign policies; a UK economy suffering the most severe financial downturn in Europe; a politically weak Prime Minister who must face voters in the next 15 months; and growing U.S. frustration with UK military failings in Afghanistan and Iraq. Fears about the end of the special relationship were further fueled by British over-reading of the new Administration’s initial statements. More than one HMG senior official asked embassy officers whether President Obama meant to send a signal in his inaugural address about U.S.-UK relations by quoting Washington during the Revolutionary War, while the removal of the Churchill bust from the Oval Office consumed much UK newsprint, typified by a London Times story this week entitled, “Churchill Bust Casts a Shadow Over the Special Relationship.”

2. (C/NF) Summary and comment con’t. Downing Street and the most senior levels at Whitehall never shared the level of anxiety over the future of the relationship that gripped the British punditocracy, and now that high-level contacts across the Atlantic are resuming, such as the visit of Special Envoy Holbrooke and Miliband’s meetings with Special Envoy Mitchell, any Whitehall concerns about the relationship with Washington will further dissipate. The issue still has traction as a subject for the UK media and chattering class, however. Recent UK media posturing over the Binyam Mohamed case (a UK resident in Guatanamo Bay) as a test of the Obama Administration’s commitment to a “new approach” to fighting terrorism, as well as British irritation about the original “buy American” language in the U.S. stimulus legislation, demonstrates that the British public will be pressing to test the Administration’s commitments and looking for signs of distance between London and Washington. Although this period of excessive UK speculation about the relationship is more paranoid than usual, we agree with a senior MP who told us that ultimately, “the people who really matter in all this, those who do the serious business, know that where it matters - over defense, security issues, intelligence-sharing - the relationship is deep, ongoing and abiding.” End summary.

More Speculation than Usual

3. (C/NF) Every U.S. Presidential inauguration sets off debate at British think tank seminars and on UK editorial pages about the sustainability of the special relationship under a new U.S. President. The debate this year, however, is louder than at any time since the fallout from the “passport-gate” affair sent shivers through the UK chattering class about the relationship between newly-elected President Clinton and Prime Minister John Major in 1992. Over the last several months much of the British press predicted a weakening, if not the outright demise, of the “special relationship.” Simon Tisdall in the left-leaning Guardian fretted that the “worrying question is whether President Obama believes there’s anything special about Britain -- and it may all be a little less special than before.” The right-leaning Times editorialized that “Gordon Brown’s phone is unlikely to be the one that rings (when Washington calls)... the new best friend in Washington will be President Sarkozy..who has advertised his fondness of America from his first day in office (and is close to Philip Gordon, the new fluent French-speaking U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe).”

“He’s Just Not That Into Us”

4. (C/NF) For many UK pundits, a break in the special relationship will come because of the new U.S. President’s personal history. Several commentators have explored President Obama’s life story to see what it might mean for
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his approach to the UK. His relative youth (which gives him no historical experience of the WWII and Cold War alliance with London), his formative years in the Pacific rather than in Europe, and his Kenyan grandfather’s treatment at the hands of British colonial forces in Kenya (where he was imprisoned) have led many UK commentators to conclude the new President has no “natural” link to the UK, perhaps even an antipathy to the UK, and this will weaken U.S.-UK ties. The Times correspondent in Washington, summed up this view: “Mr. Obama...has no personal experience of our shared World War II experiences and little of our Cold War alliance. In his memoir, ‘Dreams from My Father,’ he described his trips to drink ‘tea on the Thames’ before flying away from a Europe that ‘just wasn’t mine’ to discuss his Kenyan roots with British passengers who displayed arrogant attitudes to the ‘Godforsaken countries of Africa.’

A Fearful UK Wonders What It Brings to the Table
--------------------------------------------- --- 

5. (C/NF) For more serious observers, however, and quite a few of the Embassy’s official and parliamentary interlocutors, the reasons to worry about the future of the relationship are based on the UK political and economic landscape that the new Administration encounters as it takes office. As The Spectator commented in an editorial this week, “a glimpse into the national psyche of Britain in the winter of 2009...would find a British public and leadership shaken by the extraordinarily difficult times, economic uncertainty and widespread hardship ahead.” That has clearly translated into British fear that the UK at this point in time has little to offer a new Administration in Washington. UK politicians and foreign policy commentators point to a “perfect storm” of factors now in play that may make the special relationship less special -- from the weakness of Prime Minister Brown’s own political standing and the crisis in the UK economy, to fears that the U.S. is frustrated with the UK military’s perceived failures in Afghanistan and Iraq. There is also widespread suspicion that Washington has become infatuated with French President Sarkozy and his pro-American views.

6. (C/NF) Michael Fabricant, a Tory MP and strong supporter of a close U.S. alliance, summed up these fears when he told Poloff that the UK’s economic situation reminds the British that “Britain needs the U.S. more than ever to work with us to get out of this, but I fear we seem more like Iceland to (the new administration) right now than any other European capital because our downturn is so bad and the Brown Government so weak.” The economic downturn also means that the UK may not be able to provide the financial resources -- be it for development or new peacekeeping operations (ref) -- that Washington has often looked to London to provide. This has sparked concern that the UK will be viewed as less valuable an ally than it was when overflowing government coffers and a strong British Pound allowed the Blair and Brown Governments to lead the way in pledges of international aid and other support to global hot spots. And the economic weakness of the British economy is matched by the domestic political weakness of the Brown Government, which trails in the polls and must hold an election no later than May 2010. The Chatham House Director posed a question at a recent seminar that several interlocutors have also raised with embassy staff -- “do the political realities in Paris and London argue for the new Administration building bridges to Sarkozy rather than relying on a weak British government that may be out the door soon?”

U.S. Criticisms of UK Military Sting As Well

7. (C/NF) Also sparking concern on this side of the Atlantic are perceived U.S. criticisms of the value of the UK military contributions in Afghanistan and Iraq, especially at a time when the new Administration will be looking for allies to contribute more in Afghanistan. Brooks Newmark, a Tory MP who follows defense issues, told Poloff he fears an erosion in UK public support for continued engagement in Afghanistan because of the “criticism of our troops from U.S. military commanders and others in Washington,” which Newmark believes will also drive a wedge between the Administration and Downing Street. This sensitivity over perceived U.S. criticism of the value of the UK military’s contributions reverberates in the UK media, which frequently quotes unnamed U.S. military officers’ dismissals of the UK military’s performance in Iraq and Afghanistan. A leading Daily Telegraph columnist wrote that President Obama will want the UK to provide more troops to Afghanistan but that, “following Brown’s abandonment of his American allies in Basra, there is
LONDON 00000348 003 OF 004
a growing feeling (in the U.S.), especially in the Pentagon, that Britain can’t be relied on” no matter how many additional troops it may offer.

Looking for Signals and Reading Tea Leaves

8. (C/NF) British media and contacts are busy over-reading perceived signals for evidence of tensions in the relationship. This over-reading would often be humorous, if it were not so corrosive. Much was made in the British press -- and even by serious HMG officials -- of the “fact” that the new President’s inauguration speech mentioned the UK only in the context of the British “enemy” harrying George Washington’s troops -- although some noted that was one more mention than the UK got in candidate Obama’s 7000-word essay setting out his foreign policy intentions, which did not mention the UK at all. And Secretary Clinton’s statement before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was similarly parsed and much was made of the fact that the UK was fourth in a recitation of U.S. allies (and it was particularly painful to those British tea readers that Germany and France were named first). Similarly, the fate of a bust of Churchill in the Oval Office during President Bush’s tenure has been closely monitored in the UK media and by our HMG contacts, very few of whom failed to a sinister meaning into the decision to remove the bust (which was on loan to the White House and removed for that reason). Even the press coverage of Foreign Secretary Miliband’s meeting with Secretary Clinton, though positive, reflected the British paranoia -- and close reading of any supposed tea leaves -- on the special relationship. The Guardian, for example, told its readers that when a UK leader visits Washington, he or she must mention the special relationship “but American leaders, anxious to avoid upsetting other allies, steer away from referring to ‘the’ special relationship and speak instead of ‘a’ special relationship, at least until... (Secretary Clinton) showed her inexperience and in her final remarks, uttered the words ‘the special relationship’ at her press event with David Miliband.”

Does Downing Street Share These Concerns?

9. (C/NF) Downing Street and senior levels in Whitehall never shared this level of anxiety about the future of the relationship under an Obama Administration. The President’s January 26 phone call to Prime Minister Brown - in which the President told the Prime Minister he looked “forward to continuing and strengthening the special relationship” -- helped quell any concerns about London’s place in the hierarchy of U.S. allies. The Prime Minister’s office made sure it was released to the UK press that Brown was the first European leader to speak with the new President following his inauguration. The U.S. officer at the Cabinet Office told us that both the fact of the call and the “tone of the conversation” was reassuring and he downplayed any concern about the relationship, at least inside the Cabinet Office. Similarly, Foreign Secretary Miliband’s February 3 meeting with Secretary Clinton, which UK media and Foreign Office contacts all carefully noted was the Secretary’s first meeting with a Foreign Minister, sparked positive coverage and appeared to reassure many British observers --”Clinton Praises Special Relationship; Miliband First to Meet New U.S. Secretary of State” was typical of the headlines that followed the meeting.

10. (C/NF) Despite these clear signals from the new Administration, the strength of the special relationship still has traction for the UK media and political class. Some in the UK used the Binyam Mohamed case this past week -- in which a UK high court ruled against making U.S. classified information available to UK lawyers representing a Guantanamo Bay detainee -- as a test of the Obama Administration’s commitment to a “new approach” to fighting terrorism and to the special relationship, with a leading Tory politician charging, for example, that “denying evidence to a UK court of law (in this case) raises doubts about the existence of the so-called special relationship with Washington.” British irritation with the original “buy American” language in the U.S. stimulus legislation -- which the UK media spun as a test of the Obama Administration’s commitment to free trade agreements with its European allies -- is also an example of how elements in Britain still look for signs of distance between London and Washington. There is also still a palpable concern among our parliamentary and FCO contacts that, although there are many areas where the Brown Government’s priorities track U.S. policies under the new Administration, the high expectations in Britain about a new
LONDON 00000348 004 OF 004
golden age of bilateral cooperation are themselves a potential threat to the relationship. John Spellar, a senior Labour MP and government whip, summed this up: “At the moment, there’s unrealistic euphoria towards the new President...MPs are forgetting that, ultimately, Presidents have to behave in a certain way. Some of us are destined to be disappointed by him, policy-wise...On the other hand, the people who really matter in all this, those who do the serious business, know that where it matters - over defense, security issues, intelligence-sharing - the relationship is deep, ongoing and abiding.”

Comment: Those Who Know the Relationship Know Its Strength
--------------------------------------------- -------------- 

11. (C/NF) Though tempting to argue that keeping HMG off balance about its current standing with us might make London more willing to respond favorably when pressed for assistance, in the long run it is not in U.S. interests to have the UK public concluding the relationship is weakening, on either side. The UK’s commitment of resources -- financial, military, diplomatic -- in support of U.S global priorities remains unparalleled; a UK public confident that the USG values those contributions and our relationship matters to U.S. national security. This is a theme Embassy London stresses privately and publicly to reassure the public and HMG. As new Administration officials begin their working relationships with UK counterparts, and introduce themselves to the UK public through media and conference events, it is a theme we recommend they highlight as well.
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