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The BBC's Rob Watson in Washington
"Camp David is for the two men to get to know each other and build a personal relationship"
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Friday, 23 February, 2001, 02:01 GMT
US and the UK: Special relationship?
Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher
Thatcher and Reagan shared similar views
By US State Department Correspondent Richard Lister

With news of joint strikes against Iraq by the US and the UK, Tony Blair could hardly have asked for a more powerful backdrop for his trip to Washington.

Bill Clinton in Northern Ireland with Tony Blair
Tony Blair enjoyed a good working relationship with George Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton
Flashing across the world's television screens last Friday was graphic evidence that no matter who is in the White House, the US and the UK are still the dynamic duo.

Earlier in February, at his first press conference as Secretary of State, Colin Powell had the symbolic presence of the British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, by his side.

But for all the diplomatic niceties the phrase "special relationship" never reared its head, and like macho teenagers worried about their image, British officials in particular appear to studiously avoid the phrase.

"It's not a phrase that I use but a matter of record that America is our oldest friend and is our closest ally, and the relationship of trust, of confidence, between our governments is a very important asset to both of us," Mr Cook said.

"The friendship of people does require close partnership between our governments," he added.

The Reagan-Thatcher legacy

The effort to project a more modern and perhaps less clingy alliance, is a contrast to the hand-in-hand style of the Reagan and Thatcher years when the two governments sometimes seemed almost intertwined by the deep personal friendship of the two leaders.

At a birthday party for Mr Reagan seven years ago, with Mrs Thatcher looking on, the former president made clear that this was one of the unique relationships in international diplomacy.

They really respected each other's views, and if that is not influence, I don't know what is

Jeane Kirkpatrick, President Reagan's UN ambassador

President Reagan said: "We met before she became prime minister and I became president, and the moment we met, we discovered that we shared quite similar views of government and freedom. Margaret ended our first meeting by telling me that we must stand together, and that is exactly what we have done ever since."

Jeane Kirkpatrick was President Reagan's UN ambassador and was in his cabinet for four years. It was a time she says when London and Washington had almost unparalleled influence on each other.

"They just genuinely saw themselves as fighting the same fight for the same reasons and seeking the same goals, and they had a very good time in the process," Ms Kirkpatrick said.

"They really respected each other's views, and if that is not influence, I don't know what is," she added.

Raising American eyebrows

Mr Blair and Bill Clinton were also political soul mates, but no-one expects quite the same rapport between the centre-left British PM and the right wing Texan in the Oval Office.

Mutual friends like the European Union are also becoming a complication, with plans for a new defence identity and a rapid reaction force within Nato.

US troops take part in the Kosovo campaign
Some Americans feel their troops have no role in Europe
That would allow European members of the alliance to operate independently from the US and is raising eyebrows here in Washington.

Republican Senator Gordon Smith who is chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Europe, has been warning that the European defence initiative could weaken Nato.

Where then, he asks does that leave the transatlantic alliance?

"My generation and yours did not know World War II, and we have to begin asking 'Do we care?'" Senator Smith said.

"Do we want to say that an invasion of the Britain is an invasion of America and that we would send our sons and daughters to die for that?" he asked.

"The predicate of Nato is yes, we will. If we set up a new structure that begins to call that commitment into question, maybe the answer then is no," he added.

American isolation?

Fylingdales radar base in North Yorkshire could be used in the missile defence system
It is difficult to imagine that the US could retreat into such isolationism, but the Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is also concerned about a more militarily independent Europe.

Earlier this month, he bluntly warned Nato member states to avoid actions, which would reduce the alliance's effectiveness, and weaken the link with the United States.

Britain then appears set to play the role of go-between, persuading its oldest ally that change can be good in a relationship.

UK Ambassador Sir Christopher Meyer said: "One of the things that Kosovo Campaign showed, particularly in the air war, was that the United States had to take a disproportionate share of the burden, so the other objective of our European defence initiative is to raise the military capability of the European allies in Nato."

"I don't think that's a problem in European-American relations ... I think it is a means to bring the two sides together," Sir Christopher added.

One area of concern for European countries is the National Missile Defence (NMD) shield which the Bush administration is energetically pursuing.

Many in Europe see NMD as the trigger for a new arms race, but Britain appears to be leaning towards the American view, putting Mr Blair once again in the middle of a transatlantic rift.

Could this then be the ultimate test of the special relationship?

Business ties

Admiral William Crowe, a former US ambassador to London under Bill Clinton, says the relationship goes much deeper than what is in the headlines.

"I have always described the relationship like an iceberg, in that there is a small tip of it sticking out, but beneath the water there is quite a bit of everyday business that goes on between our two governments in a fashion that's unprecedented in the world," he said.

Admiral Crowe, now an industrialist, says the unseen part of the iceberg is the co-operation in nuclear, military, law enforcement and intelligence issues.

And with each country the largest investor in the other, ultimately he says it will be trade that keeps the relationship strong, no matter what is going on at the surface.

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See also:

16 Dec 00 | UK Politics
Cook hails Powell as 'good friend'
07 Feb 01 | UK Politics
US-UK bond remains strong - Cook
20 Jan 01 | UK Politics
'No change' in US-UK relations
12 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Hague bids for US special relationship
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