19 July 2010
Robin Niblett

Dr Robin Niblett CMG

Director, Chatham House


David Cameron's government has given clear expression in the past couple of months to its belief that Britain needs to re-balance its foreign policy away from the United States and Europe and towards the emerging powers that lie beyond the 'Euro-Atlantic' area. Foreign Secretary William Hague has emphasised in his first two speeches the need for the UK to concentrate its diplomatic efforts on the countries that will power future UK economic growth, countries such as India, China, Brazil, Japan, Turkey and the Gulf States. This makes the Prime Minister's visit to Washington this week all the more intriguing. Having communicated caution bordering on indifference about the US-UK relationship in his initial statements about the US, this is the moment when Prime Minister Cameron should start to reassert the vital importance of this bilateral relationship to UK interests, whatever the nature of its value to the US.

To be sure, the climate has not been propitious in the US for re-stating the centrality of a US-UK special relationship - the vitriolic criticism of oil company 'British Petroleum' following the Gulf of Mexico spill, can only intensify now that members of the US Congress are linking its oil exploration concessions in Libya with the release of the Lockerbie bomber Al-Megrahi.

These crises take place against a backdrop where the Obama administration has turned its own strategic attention away from Europe, where the UK has historically been its principal ally, and towards China, India and Brazil, where the UK offers the US no real strategic value.

But David Cameron's visit provides an opportunity for both leaders to remind their policy communities and publics that Britain and America are joined today at the hip, if not at the heart or the head, on a range of topics where each side can be helpful if not indispensable to the other. Afghanistan is the most obvious case and will be a key focus of discussion between the two leaders. Equally important will be for President Obama and David Cameron to look to 2011, after the US mid-term elections, at key items that are likely to climb up both countries' future international agenda.

The two leaders need to put trade back at the top of the international agenda. David Cameron needs to push his agenda of opening world markets to trade and investment if he is to power UK economic growth and compensate for the pain of the upcoming spending cuts. Barack Obama has promised to double US exports as a way of driving down unemployment and re-energising the US economy. In addition, the US administration's success in passing financial reform legislation makes this an opportune time to try to align US, UK and EU approaches to a sector that is vital to the UK and US economies.

Iran and the threat of nuclear proliferation is another critical topic for the Obama administration and UK coalition government. Lack of progress on the diplomatic front could drive increasing US political pressure in 2011 for President Obama to consider more drastic non-economic options to set back Iran's nuclear programme.

David Cameron's visit to Washington offers the opportunity for the British Prime Minister and US President to gauge each others' thoughts and instincts on this challenge ahead of what is likely to be one of the most difficult sets of decisions each will face in the coming two years.

Further resources

Between Faith and Reason: UK Policy Towards the US and the EU
Briefing Paper
Anand Menon, July 2010

Playing to its Strengths: Rethinking the UK's Role in a Changing World
Briefing Paper
Robin Niblett, June 2010

America and a Changed World: A Question of Leadership
Wiley-Blackwell/Chatham House Book
Robin Niblett (ed), 2010