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The Not Especially Special Relationship

If the British Prime Minister visits Washington and nobody notices, did it really even happen?

Posted on January 17, 2015, at 8:33 p.m. ET

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

WASHINGTON — If you blinked at the wrong moment this week, you likely would have missed British Prime Minister David Cameron's whirlwind visit to Washington.

Obama didn't take the prime minister to a ball game or out for hotdogs, as he has in the past. Rather than a state dinner or some more formal meal, Obama, Vice President Biden, and Cameron shared what the White House called a "working dinner" Thursday night.

On the menu, prepared for the men by the White House chef, were pickled wild mushrooms, herb crusted lamb, and a selection of American red and white wines. A fancy meal, but without the trappings of 2012 meal Obama and Cameron shared at the White House, a full State Dinner with celebrity guests and performances by John Legend and Mumford & Sons.

In fact, their only joint public appearance — a press conference during which they announced a new joint cyber security initiative — didn't even crack the front pages of the Washington Post or New York Times.

That's not to say the two leaders don't have a solid relationship. British and U.S. government officials said Obama and Cameron remain in close contact and that the two leaders routinely call each other to discuss issues of concern to both nations. And despite a significant amount of daylight between the two over the handling of the Syrian revolution, there is very little tension between them on most issues.

Timing, world events, and the careful twists and turns of diplomacy likely played a part in a Cameron visit that lacked the pomp, circumstance, and off-campus photo-ops of previous trips by the U.K. leader to the United States.

"Early on when the guys are getting to know each other, there's more interest in doing things that are … a little more off the beaten path," said Tommy Vietor, a former top national security aide in Obama's White House. "In the context of a major attack on Paris, a state dinner with all the trappings would probably seem out of touch."

"This is 'let's get down to business and really talk about some terrorism issues,'" he said.

Asked about the more simple affair this time around, the administration played up the many issues on the shared plate of the two world leaders.

"The United Kingdom is an uniquely close friend and steadfast ally, and the president was pleased to begin the New Year by working with Prime Minister Cameron on a wide range of issues," National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan told BuzzFeed News in an email, "including economic growth, international trade, cybersecurity, Iran, ISIL, counterterrorism, Ebola, and Russia's actions in Ukraine, and reaffirming the enduring special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom."

Though other news maybe pushed it out of view, the White House did play up the visit. The prime minister held a joint White House press conference with Obama Friday where Obama talked up the "friendship" between the two men and called Cameron "personally an outstanding partner."

On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest noted the "special relationship" between the United Kingdom and the United States when he previewed the visit in a briefing aboard Air Force One.

Optics may have played a role in a Cameron visit that lacked the joint outings and star-studded dinners of visits past. But there's also the diplomacy to consider, Vietor said.

"You sort of have the capacity to do so many state dinners a year," Vietor said, "and if one country gets a lot, other countries feel slighted."

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