The Obama administration has sometimes taken a direct approach to enacting its policies: the determination to ram through its domestic health care policies irrespective of the lack of political consensus has shown that the cautious and academic persona of the president also has a ruthless side. He has under certain circumstances been prepared to cut the Gordian knot and go straight to the point. In other areas the President has been far more circumspect. In much foreign policy, he has devolved the spotlight- if not the ultimate power- to his globetrotting Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, this week attending the donors conference in Afghanistan. Yet even in foreign policy, the administration has also demonstrated substantial ruthlessness. However such ruthlessness has been deployed at the expense of America's allies no less than towards its foes.
The abandonment of the missile defence agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic, which the US had asked from those governments in the teeth of substantial local opposition and which cost them substantial political support was only the first of several moves to "reposition" US foreign policy. A new beginning in relations with Russia- the so-called reset- also made America's closest allies deeply uncomfortable. Indeed it allowed a German-Russian rapprochement that deeply disturbed much of the Eastern European NATO allies, and- truth to tell- the British and the French as well. Questions are being asked as to whether, despite the huge sacrifices in blood and treasure that core NATO allies have been making in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US commitment to defend NATO member states against Russian aggression would actually hold good. The alliance has in certain quarters begun to seem a little one sided. The US expects NATO members to do its bidding in Afghanistan, but will not speak up against blatantly aggressive Russian policy positions with regard to Central and Eastern Europe.
Privately, the UK too has great concerns. The reset in US-Russian relations came at a time when Anglo-Russian relations were still in the deep freeze following the murder of British Citizen Alexander Litvinenko in broad daylight on the streets of Her Majesty's capital. However it is not just in the wider strategic sphere that relations between Washington and London have become strained.
To say that Mr Obama has not been as warm as his predecessors towards the special relationship is something of an understatement. He never mentions it at all- despite the fact that the British contingent is the second largest in Afghanistan and larger than all the other European groups combined. Almost his first act was to return the bust of Winston Churchill that had been lent to the Oval office and which had remained their throughout the Bush Administration. That this was done publicly was clearly a snub. Worse was to come. The State department was quoted as saying "There's nothing special about Britain. You are just the same as the other 190 countries in the world. You should not expect special treatment". Over the issue of the Falkland Islands, Washington has declared a public neutrality: "we take no position on the sovereignty claims of either party". This is particularly inflammatory given the current delicate state of both Argentine democracy and its economy. 255 British soldiers were killed liberating the Islands after the aggression of Argentina- but as we now begin to note, British sacrifices of blood and treasure are not much respected by this administration.
The latest strain is over the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Although BP has the legal responsibility for the crisis, they themselves were not directly responsible for the accident but the company that was, Transocean, which is American, has been able to escape any opprobrium. Transocean has been able to pay its dividend, while BP, formed after the merger of British Petroleum and Amoco, has not. 40% of the shareholders are in the UK and the company is the largest tax payer to the British treasury. The loss of Billions of Pounds of tax revenue has cause further economic problems at a time when the UK government is already struggling to balance the books.
Then there is the issue of Lockerbie. I came through Lockerbie three days after the disaster, and I will never forget it. The awful silence. The scattering of what looked like tiny pieces of paper across the fields around the town. The pity of it was deeply upsetting. You would think that in the face of the unspeakable, that politicians would at least respect the dead- most of whom were American and British. However the controversial release of Al Magrahi has caused some of the more populist American politicians to suggest that a deal was struck by BP in order to ensure his early release. Leaving aside the issue that many of the victims families, particularly in the UK, do not believe that the verdict in the trial reflects the truth about the affair, it is particularly galling to hear suggestions in Washington that the decision to release makes the British somehow complicit in the appalling tragedy. Frankly such a suggestion- which I have now heard several times- is absolutely monstrous. I would like to take these people and leave them on the hills where the bodies were found and then they can tell us just how complicit Britain has been in such a vile crime.
So as Mr. Cameron heads to Washington, it is clear that there is much work to do. I suspect that Mr. Obama does not personally like the UK or its Imperialist history as it relates to his Kenyan father. However, foreign policy is all about interests. Mr. Obama will need to tread carefully if the strains in the US-UK relationship do not become something more serious. Mr. Cameron comes as a secure leader at the beginning of his term of office, so the kind of snubs that were offered to Gordon Brown on his visit, would be highly unwise. Mr. Cameron in turn will need all of his much vaunted charm in order to restore the goodwill between the two countries.
American-British ties are at something of a cross roads. It would be slightly ironic if Mr. Cameron finds the doors slammed in his face. It would, for example, make the idea of renewing Trident a whole lot more problematic, since the SSBN missile system can not be operated without US facilities and support. It would make British participation in Afghanistan even more controversial. It would open the door for greater security co-operation with the French, something which Defence Secretary Liam Fox, for one, would find distinctly uncomfortable.
The most widely quoted maxim on British Foreign Policy belongs to Palmerston: "Therefore I say that it is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or perpetual enemy of England. 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".
With an administration in Washington that has been at best indifferent to those interests and at times has seemed to be actively hostile, Mr. Cameron will need to keep a very cool head and to tread warily. He may return with the Special Relationship reforged- I certainly hope so. However the UK can not allow its vital interests to be ignored or ridden over roughshod. If the Obama administration is not open to renewing the ties that have bound our two countries since the Second World War, then British interests may need to be protected through a wider network, including a deeper relationship with the European NATO allies, the wider English speaking world, including India and Africa, and a new engagement with the emerging powers of Asia.
That would be a shame, but it may also be reflective of a wider reality of American decline and over the long term could be all but inevitable.