In terms of pomp and ceremony, David Cameron’s official visit to the US last week ticked all the boxes. The Prime Minister moved from champagne lunch to star-studded dinner, offering fawning praise for – and near-total agreement on – US foreign policy. In a magnificent display of the special relationship, Cameron was the first foreign leader in history to be invited on Air Force One and William Hague the first foreign politician to be allowed into the top secret National Security Agency.
Perhaps it is unsurprising that Obama should wish to put on such an impressive display of hospitality in return for that shown to him in London last year. Yet in spite of this, the trip seemed to be dominated by superficial PR opportunities. Taking Cameron to the swing state of Ohio to affirm the importance of the American ‘heartland’ and turning the official dinner into an opportunity to butter up key Democrat funders suggest an ulterior motive.
The unbreakable partnership invoked by Obama throughout the trip indicates a marked change in policy. When Gordon Brown visited the US in 2008 the so-called ‘partnership of the heart’ saw a gift exchange of a wooden ship for a box set of DVDs. Furthermore, cables published by Wikileaks after Obama first met Cameron suggest that he dismissed his British partner as ‘a lightweight’.
As Downing Street woke up from its dream voyage, the great concern was that Cameron had restricted a future relationship with a potential Republican president. Despite Downing Street’s assertions of political neutrality, US political commentators see Cameron’s praise of Obama as endorsement for his presidency in the November election. In addition to this, his decision not to meet with any of the Republican candidates is impolite at best and dangerous at worst if, come next year, Obama is no longer in the White House. When Gordon Brown came to Washington in 2008 he met the then presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Likewise when Obama came to London before the UK elections, he met with Cameron as leader of the opposition.
The question political commentators are now asking is how their recently affirmed friendship will translate into political reality. Could Cameron become the junior partner in a puppet relationship reminiscent of the Bush-Blair years or will their relationship turn into genuine collaboration? The President has now agreed to establish a committee to examine the one-sided US-UK extradition treaty. Time will tell whether this is mere political appeasement or real cooperation. If Obama wins the election in November, Cameron’s endorsement may turn out to be both wise and effective in setting up a context for successful Anglo-American relations. That said, if Cameron finds a new partner in Romney or perhaps another Republican, then their relationship will be damaged before it even begins.