The kerfuffle lingers in the UK where presumed Republican presidential nominee Gov. Mitt Romney made several gaffes shortly after arriving ahead of the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony in London. He questioned London's Olympic preparedness, to which Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron responded,
We are holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world.... Of course it's easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere.
It was a thinly-veiled contrast between London's games (10,500 athletes in a city of 8.2 million) and the 2002 winter games Romney successfully oversaw in Salt Lake City (2,399 participants in a city of 1.1 million). Romney then appeared to forget the name of Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, who's basically as close to the British premiership as Romney is to the presidency. Finally, Romney broke security practice by disclosing he'd had an undisclosed meeting with the head of MI-6.
The Obama campaign jumped on these gaffes. However, the Obama administration's record on Britain, while on balance strong, has had problems. President Obama's administration “secretly agreed to give the Russians sensitive information on Britain’s nuclear deterrent.” Obama gave Prime Minister Gordon Brown an almost insultingly unconsidered gift. Brown may not have been a head of state, but a box set of DVD's and a coupon to McDonald's? The administration also continues to side with Argentina's Peronist government against Britain's legitimate and long-held interest in its Overseas Territory, the Falkland Islands. The overwhelming majority of Falklanders are British, see themselves as such, and wish to remain that way. In 1982, an unelected military junta in Argentina launched an undeclared war and invaded the democratic and nearly defenseless islands, and 255 British soldiers lost their lives liberating them. But, showing less than a full commitment to the principle of self-determination, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed the Organization of American States (OAS) resolution calling for negotiations over Falkland sovereignty, something even the Falklanders don't want. Insult to injury: the administration insists on using the Argentine term “Malvinas” for the Islands.
But, Obama's May 2011 state visit to the UK was very successful. He was extremely well received. While anticipating the President's historic address to both houses of Parliament, Tessa Jowell MP tweeted that "the atmosphere was like 'political Beatlemania.'" At the state dinner with Queen Elizabeth II, the mood was upbeat despite the President having to navigate through a tricky moment when musicians mistakenly started to play "God Save the Queen" while he was attempting to raise a toast to her. He took time to visit the Globe Academy in Southwark with Prime Minister Cameron--a fantastic opportunity to inspire young students and demonstrate cordiality properly reflecting the US-British relationship. And in a joint article, Obama and Cameron declared: "Ours is not just a special relationship, it is an essential relationship — for us and for the world." When Prime Minister Cameron visited the US in March 2012, President and First Lady Obama were superb hosts. The highlight of the visit, at least for the media, was when President and Prime Minister took in a college basketball game. And for the record, the tale that President Obama removed the bust of Winston Churchill from the White House or relocated it based on anti-British sentiment is a complete myth.
However, Romney's gaffes are especially a missed opportunity for both US political parties to affirm the special relationship itself, the commonalities and ties that bind through the centuries. It particular, when an adviser to Romney's campaign cited Romney's "Anglo-Saxon heritage" as a qualification for the presidency, both Democrats and Republicans could have gone a step beyond rightly condemning the racially-charged and factually ill-informed comment and reminded the world that today more than ever US and UK successes rest on citizens more racially and ethnically diverse that seen in other Western democracies like Germany or emerging ones like China or Brazil. It's part of both nations' strengths. It was more part of our pasts, too, than the Romney adviser appreciates, given that our two nations' earliest shared heritage of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries--when we were all British--rests quite firmly on the writings and laws born of Scots and Irish, too--not Anglo-Saxons alone but Celts. Is there a Western concept more profoundly shared by the US and UK than capitalism? Its father Adam Smith was Scottish, not English.
There is a special relationship between the US and UK, however imperfect it is. A shared heritage is no small thing--it's an intellectual force combining language, laws, and values that helps shape national institutions and systems. And this relationship has included US-British alliances in World War I and World War II and Britain's shoulder-to-shoulder stance with America throughout the Cold War. Not to mention Britain's willingness to stand by American in bad times, too. The UK's level of commitment to the profoundly expensive and morally and militarily controversial--some would say epically disastrous--invasion and occupation of Iraq is singular among all nations, which is why Britian was targeted by extremists on 7/7--the July 7, 2005 London terrorist bombings.
The Anglo-Saxon remark in particular was a missed political opportunity for both parties. As candidate Obama faces attack ads questioning his commitment to business and Romney faces attack ads questioning his experience as a businessman, both candidates might have highlighted critical elements of Western economic success that the US and Britain have hugely helped shape, and which in turn has helped bind them together.
Western power may have been born among Dutch and English banks and shipping vessels and US devolved property ownership--some historians would look back as far as the Italian Renaissance banks or even earlier events--but Britain and America in the 1800s and 1900s expanded and strengthened it like no other nations. Think of the Industrial Revolution, Europe's liberation from the Nazis, and the near ubiquity of British-American and, in the 20th century especially, purely American cultural icons, corporate brands, technology and--well--denim. This is a point made by the eminent Harvard historian (and Scot) Niall Ferguson in his book and documentary Civilization, in which he terms these elements of shared success the "killer apps" of Western power and numbers them exactly six: competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism, and the work ethic.
You may disagree with some of the list, but there's no denying that Britain and America played special roles in creating, preserving, and strengthening Ferguson's apps as well as values most of us hold dear and most of the rest of the world wants if they don't have, and that those values include the ones that bring about business innovation and invention from which stream many benefits. In these last two days, both President Obama and Gov. Romney could have articulated their understanding of those values, and done so especially effectively in the context of the US-UK special relationship--and to the benefit of each candidate's campaign and to the special relationship itself.
(Image UR: Avenue of the Allies, Great Britain, 1918, by Childe Hassam, American, 1859–1935. Oil on canvas: 36 x 28 3/8 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York. Image R: President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron play table tennis against students at the Globe Academy in London, 2011. Image LR: President Obama and the first lady welcome Queen Elizabeth II for a reciprocal dinner at Winfield House in London, May 2011; photo by Charles Dharapak l Associated Press.)