Who's special now?

I was reminded the other day of the Spartans who visited the court of King Cyrus the Great of Persia, demanding that he withdraw his forces from the territory of their Ionian allies, or else. But who, a bemused Cyrus asked one of his advisers, are these Spartans? A cruel brush-off for the most feared warriors in Greece, who fondly imagined that their fame had reached the four corners of the world.

Things weren't quite so bad for Gordon Brown in Washington this week: the American leadership had, it must be assumed, heard of Britain, and some must even have had a clue as to the identity of the prime minister. To judge by the pained, aching coverage in much of the British press, though, Barack Obama had managed to deliver a slap-down just as wounding to national pride. It was almost as though the White House had greeted our leader (who is not, after all, accustomed to receiving much in the way of adulatory treatment at home) with a bucket of green custard.

Telegraph journalists seem to have been particularly put out. Iain Martin was complaining the other day that the president had been "plain rude" to Britain by, for example, not giving him the honour of a full flag-draped press conference (something that the Japanese prime minister was not accorded either, incidentally, when he dropped by last week). Obama's "merely warmish words" left "a bitter taste with this Atlanticist", writes Martin, suggesting that next time the Americans ask Britain to send some more troops we should tell them to shove it. Toby Harnden, meanwhile, described "increasingly frantic" British officials practically begging the Yanks to show some respect:

"But this is not what we negotiated," said one plaintively, through the railings, to a supremely unconcerned Obama aide. Another talked of "fine tuning" that was still going on, just as a Secret Service agent on a loud hailer told him to move further away so the gate could be kept clear.

Harnden had previously written perceptively of the "crawlingly needy and obvious" attempts of the British government to ingratiate themselves with the Obama White House. And indeed it has been embarrassing to behold, combining traditional British presumptuousness about the "special relationship" (a phrase I for one can never hear without wincing) with the more understandable desire to associate Brown's almost literally bankrupt regime with the popularity and glamour of Barack and Michelle. The PM reminds me of Uma Thurman's G-Girl, one moment "saving the world", the next throwing sharks in a desperate bid for attention.

In perhaps the most mephitic of all these contributions, James Delingpole has decided that the only possible explanation for the new administration's coolness towards Brown lies in Michelle Obama's radical Black Power agenda:

Her broad-brush view of history associates Brits with the wicked white global hegemony responsible for the slave trade. Never mind that a white, Tory Englishman - William Wilberforce - brought the slave trade to an end. Judging by her record, Michelle does not make room for such subtle nuance.

Consider her notorious statement that: "For the first time in my adult life I am really proud of my country."

Her country being - er - the United States of America...

Says Delingpole:

No matter how utterly rubbish we have become as a nation in the Blair/Brown years, Britain's friendship is something Obama will come to regret having dispensed with so lightly. This was not the act of a global statesman, but of a hormonal teenager dismissing her bestest of best BFs for no other reason than that she felt like it and she can, so there.

Actually, it's the likes of Delingpole who are behaving like adolescent girls, whining when their crush-object doesn't reciprocate their devotion - or even have much idea it exists. Today has brought further evidence of such crazed stalker-like thinking. It was revealed that the present bestowed upon Brown by the president - a DVD box set of classic movies - hardly matched the British gift of a pen-holder fashioned out of the wood of a 19th century warship which, while it wasn't supporting colonial enterprises in Africa managed to intercept the occasional slave convoy. Oh, and there was also a multi-volume biography of Winston Churchill. Surely even the Foreign Office must have twigged by now that Obama couldn't care less about Churchill. I would have gone for a first edition of Origin of Species, myself. Far more appropriate, given the year.

Yes, the American present was rubbish. Usually, it's the British who specialise in giving mean gifts on such occasions. During a state visit to Slovenia last year the Queen was presented with a gold-encrusted tea service and a prize Lipizzaner stallion; the Slovenian president had to make do with a silver trinket box. When Nicolas Sarkozy visited Windsor Castle he gave the Queen a Lalique crystal sculpture of two horses and a rare 1743 volume by Louis XV's Inspector of Horses. The Queen gave Sarkozy a set of stamps: "proof copies of stamps issued in 2004 to mark the centenary of the 'Entente Cordiale'". How generous.

Besides, the White House was sufficiently rattled by the adverse coverage to issue a statement insisting that he had been "so touched by the gifts, he called Brown on board his private jet on Thursday to thank him". Private jet? We're assured that the pen-holder is now on proud display on the presidential desk - which was also made from a British warship. (Unlike their modern equivalents, superannuated warships from the age of sail can it seems be recycled into something useful.)

The unexpectedly modest reception given to Brown - worst of all, perhaps, was the contrast with the red-carpet treatment he got from the unloved George Bush - had many hacks puzzled. Was it post-colonial resentment from the half-Kenyan Obama, whose grandfather may or may not have been mistreated by the British authorities? Was it merely a pragmatic response to a changing world in which the most important foreign-policy priorities lie in Asia and the Middle East, and Britain - indeed Europe as a whole - scarcely matters? Or was it just - this is the "kindest" interpretation - just a symptom of the new administration still finding its feet, not knowing the proper form. The "proper form", of course, being to flatter visiting Brits with a combination of aw-shucks wonderment and forelock-tugging obsequiousness.

That may come in time. For today's other "special relationship" story concerns Mr Obama's forthcoming visit to Buckingham Palace. He's going to be in London in a few weeks' time as a consequence of Brown's success in persuading other world leaders to attend a summit there on the state of the economy (how on earth did he manage that one?). And it would be rather strange if the president didn't drop in on Her Maj - that really would have been a monumental snub. But this entirely expected development is being spun as some sort of diplomatic coup. The Times:

President Obama is expected to be granted an audience with the Queen when he comes to London next month for talks on global efforts to tackle the recession.

Such a move would be unusual, since President Obama will be in London not on a state visit..

Not unusual in the slightest. The only president to come on a state visit in living memory was George W Bush: but they've all met the Queen.

Plans are being discussed for President Obama to be granted an audience at Buckingham Palace on April 1, the day before the conference formally begins.

I hope it doesn't turn out to be a hoax.

Iain Martin, who somehow managed to sound grumpy even about the Obamas' charming gift of toy helicopters for the Brown children, now detects that the president is, after all, ready to bend the knee to the Great White Queen:

Note how the coolness of Team Obama disappears when a bit of regal glamour is introduced into the equation. He might not like the Brits, but he can recognise a global superstar when he encounters one. He wants to be associated with her. He's shameless.

Please. Let's jack in this "special relationship" tripe. It's undignified and counterproductive. And, frankly, if Obama couldn't give two hoots for Great Britain, there's no particular reason why he should. Certainly not the fact that the UK government enthusiastically joined George W Bush's ill-omened intervention in Iraq. Nor does the fact that most British people were enthusiastically cheering him on last November amount to a debt of gratitude: so was most of the world. So he's just not that into us? Get over it.

There are "special relationships" between the United States and Britain, of course. On an official level there are close intelligence and military links between the two countries. And there are a host of informal ties, too, based largely on language. But there is no reason why Britain and the United States ought to be particularly close. The founding myths of the American republic portray the struggle of a band of selfless patriots against an oppressive and effete British Empire, with improbable tyrants George III and Lord North (hardly Hitler, were they?) grinding the Colonists under their privileged heel. Throughout the nineteenth century the relationship was wary and mutually resentful, and in the Twentieth, even during World War II, tended to be one of convenience.

Even at the best of times, American Anglophilia was unreal and more than a little ridiculous. It was the affectation of an elite, resembling the Hellenism of Roman aristocrats who filled their homes with (frequently looted) Greek statuary in an attempt to be cultural, and kept the heirs of Plato and Aristotle as household slaves to tutor their children. It was ghastly and snobbish, and reached a fitting end in the spectacle of cricket-loving "Sir" Allen Stanford being feted at Lord's. Worst of all, some in Britain began to see ourselves through the eyes of such American fantasies, as a land of pheasant shooting aristos, Oxbridge wits and perfectly dressed gents. Beyond keeping Merchant Ivory in business it's hard to see what benefit this folie à deux has brought to Britain - or to America. If the Obama presidency sinks it for ever, that would be no bad thing.


James Delingpole has always been a pathetic drama queen. I always laugh when I read anything of his.
asquith said…
I'm quite big into The Descent of Man myself. But it's to Richard Dawkins that I generally turn for some evolutionary business.

A lot of thought must go into these gifts. But I don't suppose they matter that much. The funniest anecdote I've heard is that Obama now has a low opinion of Cameron after being favoured with a collection of "indie" CDs. He'd have been better off giving him Get Happy!! by Elvis Costello. A record by a British musician steeped in Americana which is both totally rooted & a thoroughgoing original: something you have to be a real magician to do. Anyway...

I couldn't agree more over this gash about the so-called special relationship. Its nature was revealed when Americans started deifying Blair because he agreed with the government over Iraq. Seeing Republicans cuddle up to someone like him showed me how utterly barren & bereft they are.

How little they care & that.

We'd be better off palling up to the likes of India. As a result of our imperial legacy, & the number of Indian-descended Britons, many of whom are prosperous, we are uniquely placed to make friends with them & such.

The whole thing probably isn't worth that much attention, except for anthropologists :)
Unknown said…
Why would Obama want anything to do with us? We have nothing he wants. The idiot, Blair, was his, hated, predecessor’s best chum. The Yanks are viewing the increasing surveillance, loss of free speech and appalling legislation in this country with utter astonishment. Our unelected (how that must rankle) Prime Minister is mocked by just about every civilised nation. The Queen is a pathetic, self-serving joke who lines her own pockets at the expense of her, much loved, “subjects” and her son is a moron. As for buddying up with India – forget it – that boat sailed long ago. It’s shit-creek time chaps, so let’s get paddling.
Edwin Moore said…
Ach Dellingpole is a diddy -

'Her broad-brush view of history associates Brits with the wicked white global hegemony responsible for the slave trade.'

Actually, American popular culture - eg the movie Amistad - has long since caught up with historical fact, and Afro-Americans are well aware of the nature of the beast: remember Spike Lee storming out of the premiere of The Patriot.

A box of DVDs though - sheesh!
Mark Wadsworth said…
You appear to be suffering from the widely held delusion that Obama is black. He is not. His is as white as white can be, it just so happens his mum shagged a black bloke once and got pregnant.
Chris said…
Never mind all this. Why have you gone so quiet about Bishop Richard Williams? Couldn't be that you can't make silly jokes about the Hitler Youth now that the Church is taking the proper steps, could it?
Chris said…
Apologies for the double post - slow mouse.
valdemar said…
Excellent post, H. I have to read these bloody papers five days a week (it's my job, believe it or not) and rarely have I come across a straightforward admission that the US pursues its national interests as a great power in the exactly the same way we did, back in the day. Special my ass.

Hi Chris - how about this from Radio Netherlands?

Pope Benedict in fresh Holocaust row
Published: Saturday 07 March 2009 08:44 UTC
Last updated: Saturday 07 March 2009 09:30 UTC
Pope Benedict XVI has cancelled a visit to Israel's national Holocaust museum when he travels to the country in May. The move is in protest at claims made by the Yad Vashem museum that Pope Pius XII remained silent about the Holocaust. The Vatican maintains that Pius XII ordered monasteries to shelter Jews to prevent German Nazi troops from killing or deporting them to concentration camps. Pope Benedict's trip to Israel is also being overshadowed by a scandal envelopping British bishop Richard Williamson, who denies the full extent of the Holocaust.
Anonymous said…
And, frankly, if Obama couldn't give two hoots for Great Britain, there's no particular reason why he should.

Apart from the several thousand British soldiers fighting America's war in Afghanistan.
valdemar said…
But the Americans don't seem to have a very high opinion of our army, do they, especially after the Basra debacle? Ironic to think that they'd probably rather have more troops from 'Old Europe' now.
Heresiarch said…
Not really, Chris. I just imagined people would be fed up hearing about him.
Does Obama dislike the British? The answer seems to be-Yes. He really dissed the British Prime Minister. That could not have been an accident. He has too many diplomatic advisers for that to occur. Read more here.
Does Obama dislike the British?
WeepingCross said…
My carefully-selected sample size of one (1), in the form of a member of the congregation I visited yesterday, reveals that his unelected status is the first thing that sensible Americans call to mind when asked to comment on Mr Brown. 'Bemusement' indeed.
Anonymous said…
I love the term "special relationship". It is and always shall be true because "special" is a special word: a verbal chamaeleon.

Its lovely to have a special treat and be someone's special person but less fun to have special needs; disagreeable to be subject to special measures; risky to be of interest to the special branch and fatal to be the victim of a special action unit.

Our relationship with the USA will always be special. The important thing is that we understand in what way and try to do something about it.
Anonymous said…
Oh God. Not more Internet misinformation. Obama is hardly Delingpole's "crush object". He has just written a book called "Welcome to Obamaland: I Have Seen Your Future And It Doesn't Work" - outlining all the (terrible) things he predicts for the US of A. Take a look at the reviews on Amazon. It's hardly a Valentines Day card...

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