Froth of Oil Spill Whips up Doubts About "Special Relationship" - - If There Is One     Print Email


Pelicans and marsh grass were not the only victims of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Another casualty was in Britain among some people there who felt aggrieved that their country seemed to get no specially gentle handling from the White House in the name of the “special relationship” between the U.S. and UK. That longstanding concept of a special bilateral tie has only slowly faded in London, even under the new government. But decision-makers in Washington have been saying privately for years that it no longer exists, except in special circumstances such as the wars in the Falklands and the Gulf. In London, as the damage from the spill appears to be less catastrophic than feared, the simmering resentment is also receding about what many there saw as some anti-British slips by President Obama during the crisis. At its worst moment early this summer, the situation prompted the Christian Science Monitor to headline this question: “Has the BP Oil Spill Damaged the US-UK Special Relationship?”


Around a dinner table in London this summer I was shocked at the level of prickly sensitivity displayed by an array of the British fellow-guests over what was perceived as U.S. hostility and even bullying directed not only at the BP company but the entire British people.

The point was made repeatedly there (and in other conversations) that BP had changed its name from “British Petroleum” to BP a decade ago and yet, these British people complained, Obama repeatedly in his public comments used the old name “British Petroleum” – a pattern, according to their aggrieved Brits, that amounted to a coded attempt to blame another country and divert attention from U.S. government impotence to manage the disaster.

“It is pretty much understood here,” Michael White, Assistant Editor of the Guardian newspaper, told European Affairs, “that Obama was playing the nationalist card.”

And, of course, the tabloids, as usual, blared with jingoism. In August, one covered its front page with this claim: “Disaster that Never Was: ‘Why Claims that BP Created History’s Worst Oil Spill May Be the Most Cynical Spin Campaign Ever.’ ” The Daily Mail story went on – in contrast to still rising concerns in the U.S. media – to feature the first signs of what it said was the promise of a dramatic recovery from the spill. The paper made the case that the previous disaster, involving the U.S.-owned Exxon Valdez,  will probably turn out to have been a much worse disaster ecologically in the long run,  notwithstanding that it spilled much less oil than the Deepwater Horizon accident.

One peak in this transatlantic tiff came with the White House’s successful demand that BP put $20 billion in escrow to pay for its future liabilities. Immediately, a London commentator summed up the mood of many in the British capital: “Do we get our money back?” he asked.

Was it a shakedown? “Of course it was a shakedown,” says one British commentator, but he quickly added this more worldly-wise qualification: “It was an oil company, and we all do it.”

None of this transatlantic static was eased by the performance of BP’s then-and-now-former CEO, Tony Howard. His often taciturn manner (perhaps partly dictated by legal advice) often sounded uncaring to some Americans. That was partly his manner, according to Michael White, who notes that “Tony Hayward did sound very British, and he tended to speak with irony and understatement, two speech forms not well appreciated in the U.S.”

But even the most paranoid Brits agree that BP’s handling of its public relations during the early stages of the spill contributed to the emotional misreading across the Atlantic. Hayward’s initial assessment -- that “the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest”— was seen even then in London as imprudent at best and disastrous at worst. Some of his subsequent complaints – for example, about wanting “my life back” -- seemed indefensible even to BP supporters.

Nevertheless, Obama’s comment on NBC that he would have fired Hayward was taken by many in the UK as unwarranted meddling, as was White House pressure on BP to reverse plans to go forward with a second quarter dividend to shareholders. (The Christian Science Monitor cites financial experts that estimate that BP dividends account for as much of 16 percent of all stock-market payments that UK pensioners receive.)

And today BP has found an ally in the British public as it tries to restore its reputation. A recent Harris poll for the Financial Times indicates much more popular support for BP in the UK than in the US and elsewhere. Only 33 percent of Britons (as opposed to 63 percent of Americans) said they thought less of the company after the spill. More than one in five Britons said their opinion of BP either remained positive or actually improved since the spill. “Sure, BP had some safety issues,” says one informed Brit, “but it was no worse than other companies.  Bottom line is that BP was careless but unlucky.”

Overall, this little tempest seems to have subsided on both sides of the Atlantic, even though the fallout continues about big issues. BP’s recent warning to the US Congress about limiting restitution payments if its future offshore drilling permits are curtailed – as well as the recent BP report blaming some errors on its partly U.S.-owned subcontractors Transocean and Halliburton is a reminder of these transatlantic tensions.

So where does all this leave the “special relationship?” And does it really matter anymore – or even exist?

It has certainly dated. The relationship between the US and UK has always been special because of the former colonial status of the US and because of the shared language (notwithstanding Shaw’s dictum about two countries “separated by a common language.”) But the modern provenance of “the special relationship” stems from World War II where the US and UK integrated military efforts with an unprecedented closeness, and Winston Churchill used the phrase again and again, most famously in his speech at the onset of the Cold war in Fulton, Missouri, where he spoke of “the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples …a special relationship between the British commonwealth and Empire and the United States.”

With that empire gone, Britain clearly matters less by itself, but perhaps more sometimes as the military heavyweight in the EU). When British PM David Cameron visited the US this summer Obama took pains to stress: “This notion that there is a lessening of that special relationship is misguided …The relationship is not only special and strong but will only get stronger as time goes on.” It was noted, however, particularly by Brits, that White House Press secretary Robert Gibbs made recurring use of the term “special partnership,” not “special relationship” – a semantic nuance that seemed to signal a possible recasting of the relationship.

But the “special relationship” recently has been more marked by a special and prickly discord than by special amity. UK citizens fret endlessly about former PM Tony Blair’s “lap dog” submission to former President Bush on Iraq, Afghanistan and terrorist “rendition.” More recently Hillary Clinton’s support for Argentina’s call for negotiations on the Falkland Islands triggered diplomatic protest from the UK and renewed public skepticism in the UK about the value of the special relationship.

For the US, the UK and the rest of Europe is less important, relatively, than it used to be, putting obvious strain on the reciprocity aspects of the “special relationship.” But for the UK it is important to maintain the “special relationship” with the world’s remaining superpower, churlish though it may be at times. Witness BP rapid replacement of the very British Tony Hayward with the very American Bob Dudley and the likely possibility that another American, Paul Anderson, a BP Board member, will be named to succeed Carl-Henric Swanberg, a Swede, as non-executive chairman.

And the special relationship in all this? As Michael White puts it: “London wakes up every morning and wonders whether Washington loves it.  Washington wakes up every morning and doesn’t give a damn.”

-- Bill Marmon