Two years ago I had the great honour of sharing the dais with President Obama during his historic address to both Houses of Parliament.
I remember it vividly. As the rank and file of Parliament gathered, they were joined by the prime minister and deputy prime minister, the leader of the opposition, a succession of former British prime ministers, and a few invited guests, including Tom Hanks, senior State Department officials, and me.
President Obama was running late. While he kept the political establishment waiting, I was struck by one stark difference between the senior UK and US politicians assembled in the Palace of Westminster. Unlike the UK's political leaders, there was a distinctive class and ethnic mix amongst those from the US - sending a powerful message to minorities in the UK. It underscored a core reason I believe the alliance between our two nations must remain strong.
Growing up as a British Muslim in London's East End, I've often disagreed publicly with US foreign policy, and sometimes still do. But the fact is that despite the growing trend toward a multipolar world, manifest in the rise of China and other powers, the world's most pressing global challenges can only be tackled with direct US involvement. Diverse issues like instability in the Middle East, the financial crisis and climate change, all bear the footprint of the US. It is therefore incontrovertible that if we, here in the UK, wish to genuinely affect such issues, it is in our vital strategic interest to cement the 'special relationship.'
Our respective leaders frequently call this relationship 'essential', and at first glance it might seem that all is well. The UK and US still have strong people-to-people contact; we are still each other's largest investors; and our defence co-operation is unique.
But beneath the surface, tensions simmer. The Americans feel that we should be more active in the European Union, and should increase our role in Europe by helping lead it towards greater unity and stability. The US is also concerned about the impact of cuts to our defence budget. And on the back of various terror plots foiled in recent years, the Americans have security concerns about British citizens travelling to the US, particularly those of Pakistani origin.
Here in the UK, there is a growing sense of scepticism toward the American project. The US' security concerns are seen as understandable but heavy-handed. The Extradition Treaty, for instance, is increasingly recognised as one sided - with Babar Ahmed's extradition angering British civil liberties campaigners - although the case of Gary McKinnon may have signalled a sea change in the way the treaty is approached. We are also rightly concerned about many other issues - US ambivalence on the Falklands issue, slow progress on climate change, not to mention widespread public disquiet about US foreign policy since the Iraq War.
But while some might see such issues as an excuse to end a one-sided 'special relationship', it illustrates quite the opposite. For a country whose foreign policy is massively influenced by Foggy Bottom, successive British governments have been remarkably relaxed about seeking to influence US policy. Ironically, this predicament is not simply a function of overbearing US power, but because Britain itself has taken the relationship for granted.
By always presuming the 'essential' nature of the US' need for Britain, we have neglected to engage pro-actively with the US political scene in a way that would engender the influence we might aspire to. We have completely failed, unlike Israel and Taiwan for instance, to embed ourselves in the US political conscience in a way that would befit the description 'special.' So rather than demanding the end of the 'special relationship', we should recognise that we neglect it at our peril.
Our political establishment must do more to explain, maintain and further the relationship. There are currently no national organisations that promote the UK-US alliance to the British public or in the US. The Labour Party only recently established the Labour Friends of America; the Conservative Friends of America haven't organised an event for over three years; and I couldn't even find a Liberal Democrat Friends of America.
This is an absurd state of affairs. Political parties in the UK must do more, not merely to explain the history and significance of the US-UK relationship to the public, but to encourage a national conversation on the issue. Talking about it should be as commonplace as talking about the EU.
A stronger and more engaged Britain is just as much in US interests. Greater British influence on the US political scene on issues such as intelligence sharing, the use of airpower, and development aid, for instance, might have affected positively our role in Iraq and Afghanistan, and prevented loss of lives and treasure.
The lessons from all of this highlight that in an increasingly multipolar world, it is the strategic deployment of 'soft power' rather than traditional military strength that holds the key to shaping a more stable, inclusive and prosperous world. If anything, the complex challenges of the 21st century hit home the need for the US and UK to work closer together than ever before. In doing so, we must remember that our shared values continue to have much to offer - liberty, diversity, prosperity, family, equality, to name just a few.
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