Transatlantic Briefing 5-07

In recent years it has become fashionable for newly elected leaders the world over to make a sacrifice at the alter of anti-Americanism to appease their voters. Sometimes, as Gerhard Schroeder demonstrated, such sentiments spring up to win the election. But there is no over looking the fact that from Canada’s Conservative Prime Minister Steven Harper to Italy’s left-wing Romano Prodi taking a jab at Washington is par for the course once the keys to the new residence have been collected. It is hardly surprising given the Bush Administration’s callus diplomacy and poor policies. Nonetheless, it is not acceptable. The challenge for Gordon Brown in this respect is how to balance good relations with Washington against the need to publicly distance himself from the policies of his predecessor and the toxic Texan. This task is not as desperate as it may seem.

Mr. Brown, a rather staunch transatlanticist who often spends summer holidays on Martha’s Vineyard, a haunt of American politicians from Kennedy to Clinton, will most likely recognize that now is perhaps one of the best times for him to be coming into office vis-à-vis this US administration. Mr. Bush is as unpopular at home as he is abroad. No one would fault Mr. Brown for keeping him at arms length. Mr. Bush for his part, cannot afford to tick off Mr. Brown, lest he pulls UK troops out of Iraq, making the president look like even more of a looser.

Most importantly, however, America is entering that all consuming spectacle called the Presidential election. It is a time when the entire country looks inward and the rest of the world, by and large, cesses to exist. If the outside world is referred to – it is only in the context of Iraq, Afghanistan or dastardly terrorists out to kill Americans in such international hotspots such as Topeka or Kalamazoo. That is of course, if there are any Americans left after the hordes of Mexicans snatch up all the jobs Americans love to do such as fruit-picking. Therefore, Mr. Brown is best to leave Washington to focus on the election without interfering. To do so would be fraught with danger. If he criticizes a candidate, he could find himself the centre of attention like Australian PM John Howard who attacked Barrack Obama. Even worse would be to support a losing candidate – all in all the best option is to concentrate of British politics. No one in DC will take much heed of whether or not Mr. Brown cosies up to Mr. Bush. Most will understand Mr. Brown’s decision not to.

There is no incentive in forging a strong relationship with Mr. Bush. He has shown no inclination to bend the slightest bit to accommodate international partners and the President is unlikely to help Mr. Brown advance much of his new agenda. Furthermore, Mr. Bush’s foreign policy priorities are the very potholes which Mr. Brown must avoid. Aside from Afghanistan – there is little more Britain wants to do in Iraq. As for the War on Terror, it is has not been a phrase uttered on Whitehall for quite a while. To top it all off, Mr. Bush is as unpopular at home as he is abroad abroad. In the most recent Newsweek poll only 28% of Americans approved of the President’s leadership. In Britain, support for the US has fallen from 83% to 56% in the latest Pew Poll conducted in 2006. The number is most likely lower now. That same poll also saw 45% of respondents saying the US was a danger to world peace.

This is where Mr. Brown’s challenge lies. He does not need to cosy up to the President and there is little to compel him to do so. But what he must not do is pander to blatant anti-Americanism or give into those who want to see Britain turn away from the United States. British interests have more often than not been well served by a close Alliance with the United States. Mr. Brown must ensure that the working level of the special relationship remains strong, despite a cooler tone at the top between Prime Minister and President. Diplomatic consultation, intelligence sharing, and joint military planning are all areas where the UK and US benefit from an ever closer relationship. Much of this relationship has been overlooked in favour of the less substantial relationship at the top. If Mr Brown is smart, he can bide time with Washington, sate the British public’s taste for more ‘space’ between Washington and Whitehall, all the while working to strengthen the beneficial special relationship in preparation for a more balanced relationship come January 2009.

Dr Michael Williams is the Head of the Transatlantic Security Programme at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.

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