The Telegraph quoted an anonymous State Department official who said, in essence, that the Brits needed to get over themselves: “There’s nothing special about Britain. You’re just the same as the other 190 countries in the world. You shouldn’t expect special treatment.” Whether a State Department official really used such undiplomatic language can’t be confirmed. But no language could more rattle our British cousins.
A few weeks after Brown’s visit, Obama went to London, where his schedule included the queen. He had a gift for her: an iPod loaded with various items, including some related to himself. These were photos of his inauguration and audio recordings of two of his speeches: his keynote address to the 2004 Democratic convention and his inaugural address. Another gift, however, was without self-regard: Obama gave the queen a songbook signed by Richard Rodgers. She is known to be a fan of American musical theater.
It was during this visit, you may remember, that Touching-gate occurred. Michelle Obama put her arm around the queen, becoming one of the very, very few people to have touched the queen in public, in the course of a 60-year reign. Afterward, the palace said, No sweat. Besides, said some observers, the queen had made the first move.
In the fall of that year, 2009, came Kitchen-gate. World leaders were in New York for the opening of a U.N. session, and Obama had meetings scheduled with representatives from Japan, Russia, and China. Five times, Prime Minister Brown requested a meeting. Five times, he was rebuffed. Eventually, Obama agreed to a “walk and talk” through a kitchen after dinner. Brown’s people said the leaders’ discussion had lasted 15 minutes. The British press derided that as spin — pointing out that the kitchen wasn’t that big: One minute, tops.
Again, Americans rolled their eyes at British sensitivity. In a 2010 book about Brown, Anthony Seldon quotes Rahm Emanuel, then the White House chief of staff, now mayor of Chicago, as saying, “What do we have to do to convince them of the special relationship? Pictures of Gordon getting it on with Michelle in the Oval Office?” This is another statement that can’t be confirmed, but it certainly sounds like our Rahm.
Diplomacy can seem silly, with its symbols and sensitivities, but it is not unimportant, and Democrats used to fault George W. Bush mercilessly for his lack of diplomacy (in their indictment). He had “squandered our alliances,” they said, and we needed to “restore our alliances,” as well as America’s “good name.” Yet Bush enjoyed famously — to the Left, irksomely — warm relations with Britain’s Tony Blair, along with many other leaders.
In March 2010, a multiparty committee in the House of Commons said, in effect, Enough: We must no longer pretend that we’re as special to the Americans as they are to us. Britain needed “a more hard-headed political approach towards our relationship with the U.S.,” said the chairman of the committee, “with a realistic sense of our own limits and our national interests.” The committee even recommended that Britons abandon the very term “special relationship.”
Two months later, the U.S. House said, Not so fast. They passed a resolution affirming the special relationship, citing the Magna Carta, John Locke, Adam Smith, the Atlantic Charter, Afghanistan, Iraq, and more.