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American Impressions of Gordon Brown

Commentary, 3 December 2007
Americas, Europe
In Washington, although Brown's foreign policy does not appear much different to Americans, the UK seems to have lost some prestige.

For the past decade, the United States and the United Kingdom have been the closest of allies. Tony Blair made the US-UK relationship a cornerstone of his premiership, a decision that eventually contributed to his fall from grace with the British public.

But Blair did not suffer because of close Anglo-American relations. Rather, his downfall was the result of his personal relationship with President Bush and the ill-fated plan to invade Iraq. Despite the eventual departure of Tony Blair from Downing Street in June 2007, there is no denying that during the course of his tenure in office the UK enjoyed a prominence on the world stage perhaps not seen since Winston Churchill. It was a position of prominence that the UK has lost, at least for the time being. This is because of the nature and policies of the new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. Having just completed a recent visit to Washington DC, one of the reasons of which was to discuss the course of British foreign policy under a Brown government, the author noted changes in attitude towards Britain. In short: although policies do not appear much different to Americans, the UK seems to have lost some prestige.

Upon visiting Washington, it is noticeable that Washington is not sure how to act towards Britain. Many analysts know that Mr Brown must distance himself from George Bush, but he has also appeared to distance himself from the US. In Washington, there are more questions surrounding Mr Brown, the man and his policies, than one might guess. Despite Mr Brown being (supposedly) a great admirer of the US few, if any, know much about him. Most in Washington sense that the new prime minister is perfectly acceptable, but they also find him exceedingly dull. In a nation that values charisma and charm, the new Prime Minister is at a deficit – especially because if the policy-elite cannot really get to know Mr Brown, they will revert to relationships with leaders that are easier to understand.

It seems that the pre-eminence enjoyed by Blair’s Britain has been usurped by the Germans and the French. During meetings last week in Washington, talk concerned the new direction of the French leadership, and the possibility of the French re-entering the integrated military structure of NATO. Americans have not fooled themselves into believing that real change is in the air – there is certainly a ‘wait and see’ attitude in the Capitol, both Democrats and Republicans find it hard to resist the charm and appeal of Sarkozy l’americain. Furthermore, the French have sounded off against Iran’s nuclear programme and they have illustrated a desire to work with whoever is in the Oval Office, regardless of party affiliation or international popularity. Add to this the competent international leadership of Germany’s Angel Merkel, the UK finds itself in third place.

This is not to say that Mr Brown’s policies are wrong or inadequate – quite the contrary. His focus on development is grounded in solid thinking and he shows no signs of backing down from a fight, as the increasing commitment to Afghanistan illustrates. Although he is drawing down troops in Iraq, this is more to placate the British public and distance himself from Bush, than it is an admission of error. However, his delivery is lacking. While this may seem superficial to some, Brown’s reluctance to carry a high public profile on the international stage will mean that the UK will have to get used to playing second fiddle in Europe, rather than being the lead.

Michael Williams
Head, Transatlantic Security Programme

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