When Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced this week the date for the UK general election, the US press hardly batted an eyelid. While the US election was followed closely by many people in Britain and indeed the rest of the world, the UK election—scheduled for May 6—is unlikely to invoke the same reaction globally. Nevertheless, this election is one that may matter for Americans more than they care to imagine.

The first thing to recognize is the shared agenda of the two nations. While the UK is very much the junior partner in the “special relationship,” it still plays an important role. Many of the Obama administration’s top priorities are not unilateral issues. Afghanistan, Iran, climate change and international finance are matters that necessitate discussion between the US and its European partners. In this sense, the UK often acts as a springboard for discussions between the US and other EU member states.

The issue of Afghanistan in this respect is crucial. Many believe Obama has gambled his presidency on success there, introducing 30,000 more troops in an attempt to win the war. Nevertheless, any surge could prove futile without the support of other countries’ troops. Top of that list is Britain, which contributes almost 10,000 soldiers to the campaign, more than double that of the third-largest coalition country, Germany. As Obama did the rounds in Europe last year, he found many countries unwilling to increase troop numbers. The UK was able to lend Obama a hand in this respect. In spite of Obama’s attempted charm offensive, European public support for the war has waned. A leaked CIA document highlighted the urgency of this problem for the US, proposing PR strategies to get public opinion back in favor of the war and prevent governments from collapsing under the strain of public backlash, as was the case recently in the Netherlands. Current prime minister Gordon Brown has already expressed his desire for a timed withdrawal from the country. The next British leader may become a prisoner of public opinion, jeopardizing the entire US mission in the region.

In the case of Iran, the UK has been a steadfast ally, supporting Obama’s push for tougher sanctions. It has joined the US in condemning Iran’s actions against those citizens protesting the results of last year’s election. Yet the unity goes beyond mere rhetoric. Last month it was reported that hundreds of powerful US “bunker-buster” bombs are being shipped from California to the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean in preparation for a possible attack on Iran. The British Foreign Office has remained tight-lipped about the revelations, but a change of government this summer could threaten this agreement and force the Americans to rethink their military plans.

In reality the UK election is a straight two-horse race between Gordon Brown, current prime minister and leader of the center-left Labour Party, and David Cameron, of the center-right Conservative Party. The election of the long-time frontrunner David Cameron might not entail a sea change in relations, but could conceivably disrupt US-UK relations. On his first meeting with Cameron, Obama called the opposition leader a “lightweight.” The Obama administration is also reportedly concerned about Cameron’s anti-EU stance and Cameron’s alignment with right-wing European parties that espouse anti-Semitic, homophobic and racist views. Cameron, for his part, has criticized the “obsession” with the US that dominated the Blair years and lambasted Hilary Clinton’s suggestion that the UK should negotiate with Argentina over the disputed Falkland Islands.

The election of Gordon Brown would be the preferred option for the US, but Brown has sought to differentiate himself from his predecessor Tony Blair by distancing himself from the US at times. Yet he, too, was embarrassed by the Obama administration when, on five occasions, it snubbed his request for a bilateral meeting with the president. Brown was also apparently irked by Obama when, as part of the diplomatic custom of exchanging gifts, the US president gave Brown twenty-five American DVDs that cannot be played on a European DVD player.  Perhaps the Obama administration should be more thoughtful if it wishes to maintain UK support on international issues.

The dark horse in all this is Liberal Democrats’ leader Nick Clegg. While there is little chance of Clegg’s center-left party winning the election outright, he stands a very good chance of becoming kingmaker. The election is expected to be a close-run contest and may end up producing a hung parliament, where there is no majority party. In such a case, the likely outcome would be a Liberal-Labour coalition. This is important for the US, as the Liberal Democrats are considerably more dovish on foreign policy than the other two parties. As an influential coalition partner they could exert pressure on the government to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, pursue less hawkish foreign policy and focus more on domestic issues – all of which could have dire consequences for US foreign policy.

As the election draws closer, US-UK relations appear to be going through a tumultuous time. While Americans remain blissfully unaware of any potential rupture in the relationship, naming the UK as America’s  “most valuable ally” in a poll last year, UK politicians said last month that the “special relationship” is now dead. The Obama administration should tread very carefully with the next UK government if it wants the special treatment to continue.

Michael Collins, April 2010