Clegg’s right: The “special relationship” is over

Tonight our three would-be leaders will take to the stage and set out a vision for the future of British foreign policy.

Tonight our three would-be leaders will take to the stage and set out a vision for the future of British foreign policy. One thing though is certain: a sea change is under way in international relations and it is a change which leaves a gaping hole in the hearts of many love struck foreign policy wonks. No matter how many flowers we buy, platitudes we recite or wars we enter into, our great ally across the pond is breaking up and moving on.

To be fair to Nick Clegg he has noticed this and, earlier this week, put a brave face on when he addressed the Foreign Press Association in London. The same cannot be said of his counterparts though. Both David Cameron and Gordon Brown still have that certain coy smile and twinkle of eye when they talk about Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with the US.

Our transatlantic affair has for decades now dominated British foreign policy. Regan and Thatcher were the very best of friends, and as for Tony Blair and George Bush? Truly this was a romance born of Mills and Boon – just don’t mention the war(s)!

Behind the scenes though, whilst we have been wrapped up with parliamentary expenses, economic meltdown and now an over excitable mountain, something has happened. A new leader has taken the reins of power in the White House, a leader who remembers not the Cold War, a leader with as many historical ties to Asia and Africa as he has to dear old Blighty.

It is a sad fact of the times but alas, we have been collectively dumped; and it is not just Nick Clegg who has noticed this.

One extremely well known and prominent former ambassador to the US told me recently; “(Obama) comes without the sentimentality and emotional engagement that the Second World War Generation and the cold war generation have.

“This is a very important year for Britain, we have not had this sort of soul searching about our role in the world for some time.”

For those of you who can handle it read on, though I know it hurts.

Professor Michael Clarke of the Royal United Services Institute put it even more bluntly to me:

We use the term ‘special relationship’ a lot in Britain; the Americans don’t use it so much. It’s no good appealing to American sentiment, America is changing, it is different power these days.”

This has all been reflected by a recent foreign policy select committee report which has emphasised the need for Britain to smell the coffee, or for that matter a good old cup of English tea (who needs coffee and Starbucks et al anyway?) and see the changes that are going on around us.

But don’t worry, there are plenty more fish in the sea. As Alexander Graham Bell once put it:

“When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.”

Poignant words indeed. So don’t worry Mr Cameron and dry your eyes Gordon, there are other romances to be had.

As my diplomatic friend says:

“We are lazy in foreign policy here and it is important to not let the special relationship be used by euro-sceptics as an excuse to say we don’t have to worry about Europe because we have the US.

“The Americans want Britain to be effective in Europe, they want Britain to build a strong European partner in a multi-polar world.”

Get the hint?

So all eyes will be on the second leaders’ debate this evening. Going on Mr Clegg’s performance on Tuesday at the Foreign Press Association, which left many European journalists in jubilant mood, I feel that he could be on to another winner.

It is Mr Clegg alone who seems to be addressing the fact the US has moved on. This is again going to give him the advantage of saying something quite different to the ‘old parties’.

On Tuesday he told us, and I suspect tonight he might tell you:

“If we want to prepare for the future and not be imprisoned by the past we are going to have to release ourselves from this historical span that says a position of default Atlanticism should guide everything we do in the world…

“If they are moving on, why on earth don’t we? If Obama understands that the world has changed why don’t Labour and the Conservatives?

So my advice would be, have a hanky at the ready.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.