Race, empire and the British-American "special relationship" in the Obama era
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With the election of Barack Obama, much attention in Europe has focused on the possibility of the return of the good transatlantic relations that characterised the post-war period and was seriously damaged under Bush’s war on terror, unilateralism and imperialism. Much attention has also inevitably been focused on the fact that Obama is the first African-American president elected in a country that many view as historically and structurally racist. While Obama's election was seen to represent an end to both the damaging impact on transatlantic relations of the Bush era and to white supremacy in America, these two issues have rarely been connected. This chapter will look at the link between these by focusing on the “special relationship” between the United States and Britain, a relationship that has not only been the most enduring, if at times unequal and controversial, partnerships in the post-war era. Most notably between Churchill and FDR during the Second World War, Thatcher and Reagan during the Cold War and Blair and Bush during the War on Terror and invasion of Iraq. In spite of such cooperation, it is a relationship founded on colonialism and anti-colonialism, conflict and criticism – American criticism of British colonialism and, corresponding to it, British criticism of American racism. Far from representing pure anti-racism or anti-colonialism, British criticisms of American racism and American criticism of British colonialism have been deployed at crucial moments in which their relationship and relative geo-political power and influence was being contested or undergoing realignment, from the American Revolution through the cold war to the election of Obama. This chapter will examine the British response to the election of Obama in terms of the realignment of the special relationship and the place of both race and colonialism in the discussions about Obama’s election and relationship with Britain. More specifically, it will look at how this election has been celebrated in Britain as a victory over American racism, while his relationship to Britain has been criticised for his alleged anti-colonialism. I will argue that this response to Obama reflects historical and current tensions over the colonialism and imperialism of and racism in both countries, the realignment of the special relationship and concerns about the image, influence and power of each country globally following the Bush-Blair years, as well as changes in the domestic politics of each country following their elections.
RightsThis is the author's final version of this article. Published version (c)PIE Peter Lang.
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