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Not so special?

Mark Mardell | 07:35 UK time, Thursday, 24 September 2009

Gordon Brown was frantic for a meeting with President Obama, was brushed aside a few times, ending up trotting through the kitchens of a New York hotel to have a walk and talk with him.

As the British press go into a tizz about the end of the special relationship the White House is forced to gush that they have a "terrific relationship".

It won't endear British journalists to the White House which already regards them and the sort of stories they pursue with a degree of irritated contempt.

But it is at least a chance to ask what's so special about the special relationship.

The leader of the world's only superpower had one-on-one meetings only with the Israeli, Palestinian, Japanese, Chinese and Russian leaders. The first two were because of the Middle East peace process. The third is new in the job. The fourth and fifth are the runners-up in the super power stakes, vital to put pressure on Iran.

The president did not, or at least has not yet, had meetings with Sarkozy, Merkel or Berlusconi. But only us Brits are crying into our warm beer. It hurts, in a special sort of way.

The special relationship was based on the fact that the majority of Americans were White Anglo Saxon Protestants descended from British settlers. There's the common language. For a time the special relationship was especially antagonistic.

When Obama came to Europe he called the French "our first and oldest allies". A well educated and smart person I was with turned to me and said: "Surely that was us?" Er, no. We were the hated enemy, and the fledgling republic was allied to the French because they were fighting us.

There's our debt in two world wars, and especially the last one. If Franklin Roosevelt hadn't prepared for years to come in on our side we would probably have lost. If we had, Europe would have been a different place.

The concept of the West would not exist, with Soviet-style regimes in Greece, Italy, France and all of Germany. Even if Britain hadn't been touched it would have been a lonely place for parliamentary democracy.

America is the one country that makes us feel rather inferior, where the jokes about Brits hurt. Britain is the uncharismatic older brother who rather painfully insists on going around with his younger, dynamic sibling.

But what is in it for the US?

We are a medium-sized power with a skilled military and an intelligence operation, particularly GCHQ, that allows us to punch above our weight, in denial about our place in the world. Americans may be grateful for our unstinting backing, but will spend more diplomatic effort persuading those whose support is more conditional.

The US does have a special relationship with Britain.

It also has a special relationship with Israel, Pakistan and Mexico. Come to that, its relationship is special, in a different way, with one time foes like Vietnam or Russia or Cuba. As one American diplomat put it "we have a special relationship with every country".

But America is an ever changing nation. Obama is a symbol of that. It is less white, less English, even linguistically, with each passing year. I am unsure where the president's mother's family originally came from, but it is not what fascinates him, not what he wrote a book about. His African heritage is important, and the stories he heard in Kenya will not have woken any sympathy in his heart for Britain.

He was born in Hawaii and partly brought up in Indonesia: it is hardly surprising if he mentally looks out on the Pacific and the countries that will dominate this century, rather than towards a continent that caused so much trouble in the last. I don't mean to suggest the president has any negative feelings towards Britain, I just don't see why he would see us as all that special.


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