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Could austerity strengthen the 'special relationship?'

The threat of reduced budget growth on both sides of the Atlantic could prompt both Washington and London to lean more on their "special relationship" for future security problems, panelists said last week at the University of Virginia.

Per the university's official story Monday, former Sen. Evan Bayh; British Parliament member Lord Alan Watson; and political commentator Juan Williams agreed that the U.S. and U.K. could try to shore up each other's capabilities in both hard and soft power, though Watson made an important observation: "It's a special relationship, but it's not an equal relationship," he said.

Given that the U.S. will remain the stronger of the two, it'll be an interesting balancing act for leaders in both capitals to determine how to best use the other. Remember when we heard Britain's former defence secretary laying down hard power commitments about Gibraltar and the Falklands? This kind of talk feeds an unspoken but lingering worry in Washington that U.S. armed forces might be called upon to help cash Britain's checks if it were ever forced into an unexpected conflict .

And in the U.K., former Prime Minister Tony Blair's close relationship with President George W. Bush eventually spelled his political doom. Blair was mocked as a puppet of the United States and only too eager to follow it off to war in Iraq. It may be a long while before the British public goes along with another major joint campaign with America. Recall how NATO's Libya campaign was played in Europe as an Anglo-French victory, despite the importance of the U.S. military contribution.

Still, putting warheads on foreheads may not be the best expression of the "special relationship" in the 21st century, Bayh said -- our term, not his:

"Our ability to engage in hard power is constrained by our resources," which could lead to more of the use of soft power to achieve shared British and American international goals, Bayh said.

Even today, the U.S. and U.K. collaborate so well and so often on a daily basis that health of the "special relationship" is in evidence almost everywhere you look: Prince Harry is in California getting helicopter training; the U.S. Navy is working with the Royal Navy on their new ballistic missile submarines; and Royal Navy pilots are planning to fly with U.S. Navy squadrons to learn about cats-and-traps carrier flight ops.

That's partly because London is counting on the F-35C to become the Royal Navy's flagship fighter aboard its two pending aircraft carriers, and if nothing else keeps the "special relationship" going, that will. Because just like the F-35's customers in the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps, the Brits have no other choice.

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