Britain's new government promises 'solid, but not slavish' relationship with US

LONDON (AP) — Solid, but not slavish. That's how Britain's new government sees the special relationship with the United States.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats disagree deeply on their attitudes toward Europe and nuclear weapons, but they agree on one thing: they want to avoid the fate of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was labeled "Bush's poodle" after joining the unpopular war in Iraq.

It's unlikely, however, that this will mean any significant loosening of ties or concrete policy shifts such as pulling out of Afghanistan in the near future. The Middle East peace process may lead to coalition frictions, with Clegg's party sharply critical of Israel.

"David Cameron and I have always said we want a solid but not slavish relationship with the United States," said new Foreign Secretary William Hague, adding that ties with Washington were of "huge importance."

"No doubt we will not agree on everything," he said. "But they remain, in intelligence matters, in nuclear matters, in international diplomacy, in what we are doing in Afghanistan, the indispensable partner of this country."

The Foreign Office announced Hague would visit Washington Friday, for talks that are sure to focus on the Afghan conflict. President Barack Obama was the first world leader to congratulate Cameron on becoming prime minister, in a phone call from the Oval Office late Tuesday that touched on Afghanistan and Iran and included an invitation to visit Washington in July.

Obama said in a statement that he "reiterated my deep and personal commitment to the special relationship between our two countries."

That relationship has gone through a rocky patch since the day, months after Sept. 11, 2001, when Bush and Blair stood side to side and revealed they shared a brand of toothpaste as well as many points of foreign policy.

There has been a backlash against the cozy ties of the Bush-Blair years, as well as worry in Britain that America's focus is drifting from Europe to the economic opportunities and growing powers in Asia.

Nile Gardiner, a foreign affairs analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the last few years had been "little short of disastrous" for the special relationship.

He said actions on both sides — Scotland's decision to release the ailing Lockerbie bomber from prison; Washington's failure to back Britain in a spat with Argentina over the Falkand Islands — had brought ties to a new low.

"The White House's overture will be well received in Downing Street, and seen as an early indication of a warmer Anglo-American alliance under Cameron," Gardiner wrote on the Daily Telegraph newspaper's website.

Hague is expected to speak by telephone later to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and soon travel to the United States and Afghanistan.

Clegg's dovish credentials are making some nervous in Israel, where newspaper articles have expressed alarm at the prospect of high office for a politician who last year wrote a newspaper article condemning Israel's offensive in Gaza.

For decades — especially in the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan struck up a close rapport — the Conservatives were seen as Britain's most pro-American party. Labour and the Liberal Democrats favored closer ties with the European Union, and their left-of-center grass roots mistrusted American military might.

The Blair years altered that image. Blair launched military actions in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq, putting paid to the notion that that Labour was the party of peace. And his surprisingly warm relationship with Bush led to the poodle tag.

Cameron has suggested he will take a more pragmatic view in office, acknowledging in a March interview that the special relationship is an unequal one.

"We are the junior partner in that relationship, and I think part of getting the relationship right is understanding how best to play the role of the junior partner," Cameron was quoted as saying by The Economist.

Michael Cox, an expert in trans-Atlantic relations at the London School of Economics, said there was a growing view that the relationship needed to be "rebalanced" — but would endure.

"The special relationship has been pronounced dead on five or six occasions over the last 50 years," he added "It still seems to be around.

"The ties that bind, the instincts, the habits are still very much inclined to asking as the first question, 'What will the U.S. think?'"

Britain's new government faces a long list of foreign-policy challenges — turning around what many perceive as a losing battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan, confronting the threat from international terrorism, dealing with Iran's contested nuclear program and navigating ties with the rest of the European Union.

Hague signaled that Afghanistan — where 285 British personnel have died since 2001 — would be the first priority.

The prime minister's office announced that a new National Security Council to oversee all aspects of the country's security, particularly focusing on policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is due to meet for the first time later Wednesday.

Cameron also spoke Wednesday with two key new allies, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The new British leader has vowed to build a "new special relationship" with India, believing the country can become a major political and trade partner.

It's on Europe that Cameron and Clegg's parties are most divided. The Conservatives have a strong Euroskeptic wing, which includes Hague, and mistrust closer ties with the European Union. Clegg, who speaks five languages, is a former member of the European parliament.

The two parties agreed Britain would be a "positive participant" in Europe, but agreed no further powers will be ceded to the EU without a referendum and said Britain would not join the euro single currency in the next five years.

The parties' attitudes to military matters are also worlds apart. The Conservatives are the traditional party of the armed forces, and accuse Labour governments of underfunding the military. The Lib Dems voted against the Iraq war and have long called for Britain to scrap its nuclear arsenal — though the coalition deal says the government will maintain Britain's nuclear deterrent.

Cox said the deputy prime minister was unlikely to have a big influence on foreign policy,

"Foreign policy is being run by the Conservatives, defense is in the hands of the Conservatives," he said. "The Liberals are very much the junior partner in this. Is the tail going to wag the dog? I doubt it."