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Does the U.S. still care about the UK?

By Jill Dougherty CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent
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Tensions in a 'special' relationship
  • UK general election takes place May 6, voters will choose new government
  • Relations with the United States are among the world affairs issues being debated
  • UK wartime leader Winston Churchill coined the phrase "special relationship"
  • Many question if Washington places as much emphasis on the UK in the current world

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Winston Churchill, the great British wartime prime minister with a knack for a catchy phrase, declared in 1946 that there was a "special relationship" between the United States and Great Britain: strands of culture, language, world view -- as well as military cooperation and intelligence-sharing -- that knit the two countries so closely together.

But that was generations ago, and Washington is now focused on the financial crisis, health care, China and other issues that have little to do with America's cousins across the pond. So does the special relationship still exist?

At least some ordinary British people think it does.

Watching a Liverpool vs. West Ham soccer match at a pub in Washington, Mark Dronsfield, a sales manager from Manchester, northern England, grounded in the U.S. capital by the Icelandic volcano, said: "It's a really good relationship that we have with the general population of the USA -- the U.S. people. And I think that carries on no matter what political persuasion you are."

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Many British people were turned off by President George W. Bush, and Tony Blair, the prime minister for much of the Bush era, who was regularly portrayed as Bush's poodle.

But Dronsfield said that didn't kill the special relationship.

"I think special relationships are defined by the trouble that you can go through, like in a marriage," he said. "I think the Bush era was some trouble with going into Iraq, weapons of mass destruction and all that kind of stuff and we came through that," he said.

"The trust of that relationship went down because of what they did with Iraq, and I think the people generally came through that, and then now we're looking for some definition of [U.S. President Barack] Obama with the next political leader in the UK." British voters go to the polls on May 6 to determine if Prime Minister Gordon Brown will keep his job.

Full coverage of the UK general election

Brown and Obama both insist the "special relationship" is "rock solid."

"The United States and the United Kingdom have stood together through thick and thin, through war and peace, through hard times and prosperity," Obama said in London in April. Brown echoed him: "Today we are renewing our special relationship for new times."

But the British House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee said earlier this year the phrase is "potentially misleading," and "should be avoided."

The committee points to the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and the perception that Blair's government was a subservient "poodle" to the administration of George Bush.

It calls that perception "deeply damaging to the reputation and interests of the UK. "

David Manning, Britain's former ambassador to the United States, who testified before the committee, said his country may have to use "sharp elbows" to get its voice heard by the Obama administration. "I don't think we should take it for granted that just because Britain says it, people in Washington are going to have time to stop and say we better listen to this," he tells CNN. "We've got to have something serious and important to say."

"I think you also have to be realistic," Manning said.

Europe in general has taken a lower place in Obama's attention
--Robert Kagan, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

The Obama administration came into office facing a massive list of problems: the financial crisis, Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East, relations with China. "If there is a sense ... that Europe doesn't get all the attention it might like, I don't think this should be read as a downgrading of the relationship so much as a recognition of the fact that the U.S. administration has got some tremendously tough priorities that it has got to address in a very urgent way," Manning said.

Foreign policy expert Robert Kagan, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, agrees that Obama is focused on countries other than the United Kingdom.

"He's devoted most of his energy toward the so-called 'reset' of relations with Russia. He's focused on working things out with China, whether it's on Iran, or the international economy," Kagan said.

"Europe in general has taken a lower place in Obama's attention," and "Britain in particular, which is used to having a prominent place within Europe, doesn't enjoy that at the moment," he said.

Personal relations among leaders do play a role too, he said. "His relationship with Gordon Brown is not a warm one. His relationship with European leaders in general is not warm. I just don't think Obama thinks about Britain particularly when he thinks 'I have problems to solve.' "

The White House is quick to point out that Washington and London work hand-in-hand in Afghanistan and Iraq, on climate change and on the world economic crisis, fighting terrorism and nuclear proliferation.

Asked about the "special relationship," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs initially avoided using the word "special."

"I don't have a special relationship with the phrase 'special relationship,' " he said, before adding: "We have a special relationship with Britain."

Andrew Hemingway, a sales manager from Yorkshire in northern England, who lives and works in the United States, thinks relations between the United States and the United Kingdom have changed, "with the economic uncertainty and general uncertainty in the world right now.

Britain is trying to decide whether to align itself more with the United States or Europe and London is dealing with the fact that it's not the world power it once was, he said.

"Things have changed quite a lot since the imperial days when the UK was quite a powerful nation," he said. "I guess now we feel dominated in a certain way, and I guess some people are trying to rebel against that, like in most other countries in the world -- so it's an interesting time."

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