President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron were on the defensive, arguing that the U.S.-U.K. “special relationship” could endure Britain's possible exit from the European Union.
But Washington is increasingly turning to another European power when it needs help: Germany.
“Our relationship with the U.K. is unique because it’s cultural,” Frances Burwell of the Atlantic Council think tank said. “But, like it or not, over the last couple of years if you want to get something done in greater Europe — be it sanctions on Russia or T-TIP — you have to go to Berlin, not London.”
Burwell was referring to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a massive trade deal being negotiated by the United States and European Union. In Germany on Sunday, Obama said the pact likely will not be ready for "ratification" by the end of this year but hopes negotiations will be wrapped up by then with ratification in 2017.
Where Obama and Cameron spent ample time Friday selling the closeness of their relationship, Merkel and the president gave only a few passing references to theirs during a joint press conference on Sunday in Hannover.
Last week, both Obama and Cameron expressed their opposition to the "Brexit" from the EU, and at the London news conference made the case that their alliance is a major part of each nation’s cultural fabric. Cameron called the countries “kindred spirits.” Obama called the partnership “solid” and said “nothing” could break the allies’ “cultural and emotional affinities.”
Still, it was clear both leaders are concerned a British EU exit could forever — and to each sides’ detriment — change the two countries’ economic ties.
“The strong and essential partnership between our nations has never been more important,” Cameron said, noting it was Winston Churchill who first talked about the “special relationship” 70 years ago. Cameron, however, described something different than a friendship; rather, he said, Churchill was describing “a way of working together.”
“It was about two nations,” he said, “who share the same values and so often the same approaches to the many issues we face.”
Issues. Challenges. Problems. Cameron and Obama, though both thrown back on their heels as reporters peppered them with questions about the level of “special” in the relationship, focused on how the countries could tackle their differences.
They did little to ignore Brexit, the white elephant in the room.
Should America’s closest partner leave the EU, Obama warned that Britain would instantly become less powerful both inside Europe and around the world.
But it was his cautionary words about U.S.-British economic ties that appeared aimed at those British voters who remain undecided whether to leave or remain in the EU come June 23, when the entire country will head to the polls.
Obama said that if Britain goes it alone, the kind of massive U.S.-U.K. trade deal Brexit proponents are predicting would not happen overnight. In fact, he bluntly warned “the U.K.'s going to be at the back of the queue.”
That's because American officials are focused first on striking a trade pact with the entire European Union. What’s more, the U.S. is also working on other trade deals that would involve multiple countries.
Burwell pointed out that “the United States doesn’t really do bilateral trade deals anymore.”
“But that won’t stop the ‘leave’ side at all,” she said. "That side of the EU exit debate is based on emotion … but it won’t hurt the ‘special relationship.’”
The leaders, as their predecessors have over the decades, offered anecdotes about how their own personal relationship underscores that of the countries they lead. Obama joked about how they sampled American and British beers, and once got “whooped” by schoolchildren in a table tennis match.
Obama tried to give his British counterpart some cover by walking back comments the U.S. commander in chief made to a reporter for The Atlantic magazine about the U.K. and other European countries being “free riders” on America’s massive defense budget and military prowess.
NATO member nations must each spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on their militaries to properly ensure the post-World War II alliance is strong enough, Obama said. "That is something David has made sure" happens in the U.K., he added.
Yet, despite the kind words and rhetorical flourishes about a relationship so special it should last for all “eternity,” as Obama said, some see Washington and London drifting apart.
“On these kinds of issues, an American president has to go see Chancellor Merkel,” Burwell said, referring to German leader Angela Merkel. “And the biggest reason is the Brits have been so involved in their own internal debate about whether to stay in or leave the EU.”
Germany’s emergence as the European friend Washington turns to when things get tough could be here to stay.
“My concern is, even if the Brits stay, the nature of their debate will make them less of a leader within the EU,” Burwell said. “And if they do leave, it’ll be nasty. … And other leaders will realize the person who benefits most is [Russian President] Vladimir Putin.”
Some experts see a Brexit setting off a European slide toward Moscow. That’s because Great Britain, due in part to its relationship with the United States, acts as a counterweight to Russia.
That’s likely why Obama chose to ignore criticism like that from Nile Gardiner of the Heritage Foundation, who this week said Obama’s comment about the British EU referendum “insults” all Brits.
Instead of bowing to such rebukes, Obama delivered a forceful case that Britain as an EU member is stronger on the continent and across the globe.
"The United Kingdom is at its best when it is helping to lead a strong Europe. It leverages U.K. power to be part of the European Union,” Obama said, seeming to directly address British voters.
Obama did not try to shield his belief that his country stands to retain its position as the world’s most powerful nation if Britain votes to remain an EU member.
“If one of our best friends is in an organization that enhances their power and economy, then I want them to stay in it — or at least I want to be able to tell them, ‘I think this makes you bigger players,’” Obama said. “Ultimately it’s your decision. But precisely [because] we’re bound at the hip, I want you to know that.”
Should Britain’s influence wane, Germany likely would be ready to do even more with — and for — Washington, Burwell said.