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Off and On Message: The [insert adjective here] Relationship

May 25, 2011

Back in 2003, Love Actually played the “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom as a joke.  Not The Daily Show, not SNL or Qi; it was a Christmastide rom-com snarking the diplomatic term up.   Nail in the coffin, you would think, for that particular phrase of rhetorical positioning.

Then again, the US is still center world stage, Britain’s Got Talent isn’t exactly a swan song, and we’re likely to be entangled allies a while yet; we just bombed our third country together.   Some new concession to our storied, historical connection seems called for.

At first glance, The Times of London’s May 24 editorial, co-authored by President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron, reads as an attempt to coin a new term, one that shunts aside the previous decade’s qualms and quips while simultaneously suggesting a continuity of esteem and support.  Their choice:  essential relationship.

Ours is not just a special relationship, it is an essential relationship — for us and for the world.

And at first glance I thought, not bad.  There’s something compelling in the idea of being essential to one another, and relationship is a nice, familiar way to define UK-US sympathies; Love Actually or not.  But there’s no follow-through.  The editorial makes no move to repeat essential relationship.  The official language of the visit reverts to special—both the Queen’s toast and Obama’s dinner remarks are full of special relationship effusions:

Ladies and gentlemen, we are here to celebrate the tried, tested, and, yes, special relationship between our two countries.

Prime Minister Cameron, Mrs. Cameron, distinguished guests, it is a great honor to join you again in this great country as we reaffirm the enduring bonds between our two nations and reinforce this special relationship.

To Her Majesty the Queen.  For the vitality of the special relationship between our peoples,

Repetition catches our attention, as we at TST might have mentioned before.  Why not repeat this “essential relationship” phrase, if that is meant to be the soundbite of the day?  True The New York Times and The Washington Post both bring up the “essential” redefining. Nevertheless, plenty of media sources, on both sides of the Atlantic, made special relationship the term of note.  When they aren’t comparing fashions or recounting faux-pas, of course.

What happened?  Upon reflection, I think the follow-through wasn’t necessary, because I don’t think the new term was meant to be.  I was focusing on the wrong word.  Special, essential, potato, potahto, in bringing up old language and offering new, what Obama and Cameron really get people talking about is the relationship.  The shared position.  The US and the UK—in it together.  The first and sixth largest GDPs.  Two of eight nuclear powers; two of five permanent members on the UN Security Council. Lion and Eagle (basically, Gryffindor!)

So our leaders are on different ends of the political spectrum.  So the dragging wars and economic disasters wore us thin-skinned.  The message remains–this is a relationship.  It’s still a connection no other country can quite claim.  Words seem enough to patch up years of tension, and so the message might be that Qaddafi, and the reorganizing Al Qaeda, and Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq,  and every other country and confederacy stirring the pot needs to take into consideration a paired agenda of diplomatic and military goals.

If shared sense of agenda and worldview actually counts as a relationship or if it is instead “strictly business” as one line of commentary has it—I don’t think those details matter.  With foreign wars and fiscal woes, plain stability is a great thing to find.  Obama and Cameron promise their people, and the world, the US and the UK will work together. That’s the message that matters.  The rest is just party dressing.

If you want to know more:

  • I stand by my opening line.  Otherwise we’d have to think the filmmakers meant us to take Hugh Grant and Billy Bob Thornton and David Beckham’s right foot as actual political commentary, sandwiched between the layers of clotted cream and treacle.  The movie-viewing public isn’t that credible, right?  Well, maybe Thornton; I might have bought that.
  • I accessed the Obama and Cameron’s editorial through Proquest.  Its copy ends with the fragment “For those who wish us harm, there can be no impunity, no refuge” just standing alone, lacking even a period to mark the end.  It is similar to a line in one of the body paragraphs, though the clauses are reversed.
  • MSNBC reports that the Queen’s toast is, indeed, coordinated with official politicians, so her use of “special relationship” was vetted and approved.
  • Transcripts of the Queen’s toast, followed by Obama’s toast are found hereThe Washington Post has video here.
One Comment leave one →
  1. Vic Perry permalink
    May 26, 2011 1:33 pm

    Here I fearlessly admit that I watch movies like “Love Actually,” which Did So contain what was obviously a political wish-fulfillment for Great-er Britain in addition to the whole “special relationship” joke.

    The wish that could only have come true in a movie was to have Hugh Grant (played by Tony Blair) publicly diss and distance himself from Billy Bob Thornton (played by George W. Bush). It was probably the most romantic idea in the whole movie, given the way Tony B. was so relentlessly chipper about the Iraq War.

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