A Landmark Meeting for Monarch in Waiting

In December, Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, second in line to the British throne, made a one-day side trip to Washington from a longer visit to New York with his wife, the Duchess of Cambridge, and met separately with both President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.

Britain’s future monarch had a speaking engagement at the World Bank in Washington, so a courtesy visit to the president was good manners. But the Obama White House has done very little hobnobbing with foreign royalty and has been known to refuse occasional requests by other European royals for just such a visit, citing pressure of work or presidential travels (in which case, the royals in question don’t include the US capital city in their itinerary).

So, when the visit was announced in London (less than 48 hours in advance), the White House seemed to find it necessary to explain, firstly, that Prince William shared the administration’s concern over the criminal poaching of elephants for ivory in Africa. At the Washington summit of African leaders in August, the White House had promised to raise the level of support in the fight against the decimation of the elephant population in Africa’s game preserves. And secondly, the White House added, the prince’s meeting with the president “underscores the special relationship” between the two countries.

Close and valuable as the trans-Atlantic relationship undoubtedly still is, British officials wince when they hear Americans intone the phrase “special relationship.” Publicly, at least, the British say they’d like it rendered obsolete, the argument being that it raises unrealistic expectations, diminishes the true meaning of the bilateral relationship, and irritates other countries unnecessarily. Critics of the so-called “special relationship” also say the United Kingdom gets little in return for its support of controversial US actions and policies.

A couple of years ago, a British parliamentary committee, after a lengthy hearing on US-UK relations, dismissed the phrase as just another relic of the Cold War that probably did more harm than good, and recommended abandoning it altogether. British diplomats and other officials make a point of never using it and have become very creative in paraphrasing it. For example, in November, the prince’s great aunt, Princess Anne, opening an exhibition at the Library of Congress in Washington, spoke of “today’s shared values” between the United Kingdom and the United States.

But on the American side it remains standard shorthand, a durable set piece, even when—as now—a number of bilateral glitches have spoiled the pretty picture, such as the August 2013 House of Commons vote against joining the US in any direct military operation against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime (the first time in decades that a British prime minister was unable to deliver British troops for a joint military action with the US), or—while it lasted—the uncertainty surrounding the future of Britain’s nuclear capability if Scotland became independent, or even Prime Minister David Cameron’s escalating rhetoric about a possible British pullout from the European Union.

For the Duke of Cambridge, the meeting with Obama in the Oval Office was a landmark of sorts in his preparation for the throne. Earlier this year, Kensington Palace—the Cambridges’ new London residence—announced that the phase of his life as a serving Royal Air Force search-and-rescue helicopter pilot had come to an end.

Initially, the palace said in a statement, he will devote more time to his charities and causes and to supporting the queen “through a program of official engagements,” while at the same time “considering a number of options for public service.”

In short, he would now devote his attention and considerable energies to the unique challenge of being a monarch-in-waiting.

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