Will Obama and Cameron be as Close as Kennedy and Macmillan?

tags: JFK, special relationship, Kennedys, Harold Macmillan



Alanna O’Malley is a PhD researcher at European University Institute, Florence Italy.

The recent general election in Britain resulted in the first hung parliament since Edward Heath’s refusal to resign in 1974 and the subsequent takeover by Harold Wilson’s minority government.  On May 11, David Cameron’s Conservatives formed a historic coalition with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, setting the stage for a new era of non-partisanship in British politics.

In a similarly epoch-forming development in American politics, Barack Obama became the first African American president on January 20, 2009, promising to deliver an agenda of social reform and a more open, transparent and liberal government.

Both of these new administrations capitalized on what is emerging as the strongest platform of populist politics:  bold rhetoric for change, mobilization of the masses, and above all, a serious challenge to the status quo.  These drastic and seemingly new developments in British and American politics, however, echo the defining era of the 1960s, and a comparison may be drawn with Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government and John F. Kennedy’s Democratic administration.

The first, most obvious link between the two is the similarity between Macmillan’s insecure Tory government, echoed in the necessity for Cameron to look upon the rival Liberal Democrats as his new allies in Westminster.  Both Macmillan and Cameron rule with a strong Labour Party in opposition, a situation which, in the case of Macmillan, made Britain more dependent on the Anglo-American “special relationship.”

For his part, Obama has governed with a challenging Congress, despite his Democratic majority. He has had his strongest reforms, including the recent health care bill, pilloried in the public arena.  Similarly, Kennedy rolled into power on a platform of reform but found his domestic proposals faced serious challenges from Capitol Hill.

What will be most interesting, however, is what affect, if any, has this revolution in populist politics has on the Anglo-American ‘Special Relationship’?

As the phrase “Mac & Jack” betrays, the Anglo-American relationship between Kennedy and Macmillan was being rebuilt after the disastrous fallout from Suez in 1956.  Their time in power saw it bloom.  Despite Macmillan’s fears that he would be viewed as the old Edwardian grandfather by the young Irish American, the personal relationship between Macmillan and Kennedy was one of almost unparalleled confidence.  It was during these years that a direct telephone line was established between the White House and 10 Downing Street, reflecting the extent to which both leaders conferred privately with each other.

While the Cameron/Clegg relationship with Obama has yet to be fully defined, there are a few indications that the current political climate presents several opportunities for a reinvigoration of the intimacy of this historic alliance.

If Kennedy and Macmillan reinvigorated the Anglo-American relationship after Suez in order to bring it back to the closeness of the war years, Cameron and Clegg will face a different sort of challenge with Obama.  In recent years, the negative public relations reverberations from British participation in the debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq have had a sustained impact on the perception of the “special relationship.”  Undoubtedly the power imbalance between the two, with Britain commonly being portrayed as America’s poodle, has done some damage to the impression of British foreign policy abroad.  While the extent to which Whitehall is actually influenced by public opinion is questionable, the new coalition, on tentative terms, needs to stand firm and alter this negative idea.

Though Whitehall mandarins are traditionally immune to the subjective currents of public opinion, the need to meet the promises of changes to the status quo may shake up the halls of foreign policymaking under Cameron and Clegg.  They arguably face similar challenges to Macmillan in attempting to rebuild the “special relationship” after it has been denigrated in the public view.  The UK’s intimate relationship with America has drawn Britain into a costly war which has resulted in British soldiers returning in body bags.  The difference with UK involvement now is that, unlike in the ‘60s, the Anglo-American relationship lacks the international prestige it once had.

With a penchant for summitry and struggling to retain control over her remaining dominions in the face of the rising agendas of newly decolonized states, Britain’s relationship with the United States gave London some level of international prestige, especially during the early 1960s.  While then U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson was correct in his infamous 1962 observation that Britain had “lost an empire and not yet found a role,” it may be pointed out that, from the British perspective, the task of finding a role was strongly linked with the UK’s strategic importance to the United States.

A comparison may also be drawn between the administrations at work in the State Department and Whitehall.  Kennedy in particular was very keen on distancing himself from Eisenhower’s foreign policy and brushing out the cobwebs from the State Department, where the same figures had been setting the policy agenda since World War II.  As part of his revision, he choose to engage with the Third World and the the campaign for decolonization, but also placed a special emphasis on fortifying the Anglo-American relationship.

In a similar manner, Obama has sought to provide a clean sweep of the pre-existing framework for policy-making in the State Department.  Though the transition from Condoleezza Rice to Hilary Clinton has not proven to be dramatically different, what has been achieved is a foreign policy agenda with a different focus.  Obama has succeeded in defining a different, inclusive American foreign policy which differs from that of his predecessor in that it grants more importance to alliances and international organisations.  Rather than an isolationist U.S., foreign policy under Obama has engaged progressively in world affairs, standing to the letter of international law with regard to controversial issues like Guatanemo Bay, rendition flights, and interrogation methods.

Although it is too early to tell exactly how Whitehall will change under the new British government, it may be that little will actually change.  Not only has Whitehall traditionally survived successive governments unaltered, with the pressing economic crisis and a motivating agenda for domestic change, it is unlikely that any big foreign policy departure can be expected from the United Kingdom.  It may however be argued that they will continue to work to restore confidence in the Anglo-American partnership in order to redefine Britain’s place in the world, given that her participation in Iraq and Afghanistan has revealed the extent to which she is reliant on American military might.

However, in the current globalized climate, where the nature of the international system is based more on multilateral alliances rather than on strategic bilateral partnerships, it is questionable whether this perception of the strategic alliance with the United States, actually grants any tangible difference to the notion of British international prestige.

The Anglo-American relationship can no longer still be defined as interdependent in nature as it was under Kennedy and Macmillan, considering that the last decade has really institutionalized the power balance, and the extent to which Britain is dependent on the United States, and incapable of influencing the stronger ally on matters of crucial importance.  In light of the growing hegemonic tendencies of Russia and China, however, there may be further opportunities for the “special relationship” to prosper.

Though the notion of international prestige, so long a bedrock of British foreign policy, is woolly and indeterminate at best, American efforts to reinvigorate the alliance reveals the sustained importance attached to Anglo-American relations by the stronger power.  The comparison between the two administrations is clear in view of the similar challenges now facing both countries:  a tumultuous international system, a commitment to changing the status quo, the securing of an uncomfortable parliamentary majority and the emergence of a new era of partnership.  What remains to be seen is exactly how the two nations’ perceptions of the “special relationship” will bear out, and whether or not historians in the future will refer to the “special relationship” in terms of David and Goliath or whether or not it will turn out to be a successful ménage a trois.

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