Obama and Cameron: we’re all Palmerstonians now

by | Jul 21, 2010

Speaking together at the White House today, Barack Obama and David Cameron had a lot to say about the “special relationship” between the U.S. and UK.  But this was hard-headed stuff.  Here’s Obama (with emphasis added by GD):

Above all, our alliance thrives because it advances our common interests. Whether it’s preventing the spread of nuclear weapons or securing vulnerable nuclear materials, thwarting terrorist attacks, or confronting climate change, or promoting global economic growth and development, when the United States and the United Kingdom stand together, our people —- and people around the world — are more secure and they are more prosperous.

And here’s Cameron:

Our relationship is one that has an incredibly rich history. It is based on ties of culture and history and, yes, emotion, too. But for all those things, I think it has also an incredibly strong future that is based on results — results of a positive partnership of working together, agreeing where we agree; when we have disagreements, working through them and coming to a fair conclusion.

So, this is a special relationship, but should be judged on (i) interests and (ii) results. Who does this remind me of?

As you knew at once, it’s Henry John Temple, the 3rd Viscount Palmerston and British PM during the U.S. civil war.  Palmerston is famous for saying this:

We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.

To which he added, a bit less famously:

With every British Minister the interests of England ought to be the shibboleth of his policy.

Obama and Cameron both seem to be in a Palmerstonian mood.  This replaces the Churchillian mood that characterized the Bush-Blair era (remember the bust?).  That’s a downgrade, but we are not back in the days of Washington and Lord North!

Note 1: For earlier thoughts on Palmerston and U.S.-UK relations (and the “shibboleth” line) check out this 1969 Foreign Affairs article by another PM, Edward Heath.

Note 2: For more recent thoughts on “the Palmerstonian moment” in U.S. policy, see this 2008 piece by Richard Haass of CFR.

Note 3: Am I the first to compare the new UK leadership to Palmerston?  No.

Note 4: That said, if you search for “Palmerston” on Google News right now, the first hit is a rather diverting story about a “naked pie man” in New Zealand.  Here he is!

Note 5: Palmerston was a Liberal.  The Liberal Democrat History Group notes that, while he was still a relatively junior politico, he and his party backed a coalition administration with the Tories led by the Duke of Wellington, “but only reluctantly in what they saw as an ultra-Tory government.”  It didn’t last long.


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