How special is the Special Relationship?
If Lesley Gore, singer of the 1960s hit “It’s My Party,” were advising the British monarchy on the royal wedding guest list, she might say, “It’s your party and you’ll invite whom you want to.”
But unless there has been a logistical error by the Royal Mail while delivering invitations, or a change of spirit by Buckingham Palace, neither President Barack Obama nor First Lady Michelle will be attending the highly celebrated event of Prince William and Kate Middleton on April 29th in Westminster Abbey.
The conspicuous absence of the Obamas is likely to call into question the “special relationship” between the United States of America and the United Kingdom of Great Britain, result in a global media bacchanalia, and cause recollection of a series of awkward acts of statecraft.
The Abbey is a venerated icon of Western civilization, established in the tenth century and the site of coronations since William the Conqueror. Several thousand souls lie at rest or are commemorated by monuments near its solemn Gothic arches — monarchs, novelists, poets, scientists, composers, warriors, prime ministers, and others — whose personal contributions and sacrifices are the foundation of Great Britain and much of our Western values and thought.
The explanation given is that the wedding is not a state affair, although French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni, are believed to be on the guest list. Further, it is well-known that Nancy Reagan attended the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer and that the Reagans were also invited to the wedding of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson.
Since the earliest days of the Obama administration, the special relationship with Great Britain, America’s most trusted ally in war and peace, has seemed to teeter because of a string of perceived gaffes. Shortly after the inauguration, and as covered in the Telegraph, a bronze bust of Sir Winston Churchill, admired in much of the world for his fight against fascism, was returned to the British.
Further, then Prime Minister Gordon Brown did not enjoy a photo-op with the President in the Oval Office setting. As reported by Fox News, Prime Minister Brown was given pop DVDs as a White House gift (evidently incompatible with British consumer electronics), in contrast to his more substantive offerings that included a thoughtful commemorative made from the wood of a 19th century British anti-slave ship, HMS Gannet; a symbolic document noting the beginning of service by its sister ship, HMS Resolute rescued by the U.S. in the Arctic; and the biography of Winston Churchill by Martin Gilbert. President Obama was said to be so moved by the prime minister’s gifts that he made a special effort to express his thanks from aboard Air Force One.
Several weeks later, the President’s gifts to the Queen included thoughtfully poignant music of Rogers and Hart having special meaning to the royals, and also some of his speeches on an iPod, which attracted attention for its perceived narcissistic value. And when Michelle reciprocated the Queen’s touch — many, especially in Britain — were not amused.
Some of these matters can be individually explained. The bust was said to be on loan and to understandably have very unpleasant memories for the President, in view of the Kenya independence movement while Churchill was prime minister, and the imprisonment and torture of his grandfather, according to family sources in the Telegraph.
Another view is that the New World is a place of youthful enthusiasm, where like Nike, you “just do it.” It is a milieu of pop culture and informality, in contrast to the time-honored tapestry of European ways, moribund to some. And the sleek iPod is a symbol of American coolness, technological prowess, and mastery of consumer branding.
But there is also more to it than that. Many Americans think that because of the English language in common, we are therefore just like the British and they are just like us, even though this is hardly the case. Britain is an old society, like the continent of Europe, where “what isn’t done won’t be done,” as the expression goes. It is a country of practices and protocols extending to the Roman period and to earlier settlements dating to about 3000 BCE.
The mistake Americans make in interacting with the British is to express inappropriate cuteness or familiarity, which the British do not appreciate let alone express, rarely even to themselves. The old guard of Britain, certainly represented by Buckingham Palace, has been known for decades for icy reserve and a stiff upper lip during normal times and during those of travail and adversity.
Compared to the U.S. where proper manners have faded over the generations, much of Britain still values well-cultivated behavior, stoicism and appropriate reserve. A country where xenophobia can be a force, Britain does not readily accept foreigners deemed to be unorthodox or impertinent. Good White House advisors should know this and should think before they advise on what gifts to bear and how to act.
In statecraft, form is substance. The omission of the Obamas from the guest list was no accident and suggests that the soi-disant special relationship may not be so special right now — and it will look even less so on April 29th.
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