Thursday, July 26, 2007

Brown Needs a Bit of Gray

Brown Needs a Bit of Gray
My Tribune column, 27 July 2007

Every mature adult knows that being friends doesn't necessarily imply consent to non-censual screwing, which is why no one with any sense takes as declarations of war the muted declarations of independence from George Bush's policies that some of Gordon Brown's new ministers have expressed.

There is something obsessively dysfunctional about this preoccupation with a relationship, which, rhetoric apart, is not so special at all. The recent total fixation with it has cost Britain considerable clout with the rest of the world, in the Middle East, and with the Commonwealth, while failing to deliver influence in the European Union commensurate with its size and power. After all who wants to listen to the dummy when you can contact the ventriloquist directly in Washington.

Even so, there are indeed very good reasons, economic, political, military and historic, for close British relations between the USA, even though there are equally good reasons why the disparity in power between the two nations necessarily implies some degree of inequality in that relationship. In the early days of Labour government, and indeed before, Britain hovered round a Goldilocks position, not too close to, nor too distant from Washington. As a result it had influence.

A particular case of both the success and the limitations of that more measured alliance was Tony Blair's prevailing on a reluctant Clinton that they should act in the Balkans – and his failure to persuade the President that bombing attacks were symbolic but counterproductive. It took months before the mere threat of a ground attack that Clinton had publicly renounced, had Milosevic running up the white flag over Kosovo. Apart from the deranged Leftists who think that thousands of dead Kosovars a mere peccadillo, most of the world agreed that this was in the end one of Blair's (and Robin Cook's) most positive achievements.

But faced with an American administration that has lost the confidence of its own electorate, at least in part because they can see just how unpopular Bush has made their nation across the world, it makes no sense at all for Gordon Brown to tie himself to the mast of the sinking USS George W. Bush in the same way that Tony Blair did. Real allies tell you when you are about to hit the rocks, they do not stand beside you calling "full sail ahead."

For a start, there is more to close relations with the USA than kowtowing to the President. Only the most naïve foreign potentate would think that a visit to the Queen would necessarily deliver British support for his regime. Of course George W. Bush does indeed have more power than Mrs Windsor - but in many aspects vital to British interests, the President could not deliver even when he was more popular than he was now. Economic relations, trade, open skies agreements, even military production and sales, are in the hands of a Congress that is currently not exactly a Presidential fan club.

However, while Bush may be intellectually challenged and detached from reality in his perceptions, his reactions are all too real, so it makes no sense for the Prime Minister to go much beyond "Up to a point, Mr President," in tactfully disagreeing, while firmly stating his points where they disagree and emphasizing the points of agreement. But while dancing daintily with dogma in the White House, he also needs to cultivate relations with the broader spectrum of American politics.

Of course, there is no way that Britain can rally a domestic lobby with the power of the Israel lobby, (which is, of course, the real "Special Relationship,") nor should it want to. British expatriates in America, although significant in numbers, are British enough not to subscribe to the "my country, right or wrong," scoundrel school of patriotism. But at the very least, Gordon Brown, either directly or through his ministers, needs to charm the majority of the American public and the politicians who represent them while putting some discreet distance between himself and Bush, whose poll rating makes Richard Nixon look positively saintly.

Even so, there are times when the kissing has to stop because it is not getting you anywhere. In the US, as the former speaker of the House Tip O'Neill said, "All politics is local." Any domestic lobby (and in case you think this contradicts what I said earlier, AIPAC, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee is a domestic lobby!) will trump foreign representations.

Experience shows that playing hard to get can win appreciation, while playing tough produces results on Capitol Hill. The EU has demonstrated that with its threat of tariffs to secure the delivery of WTO commitments from a perennially protectionist Congress. So the choice facing the Labour government is not "either Europe or the US." A significant British role in Europe strengthens Britain's hand in the USA.

Indeed, an independent British role in the rest of the world strengthens the hand of a British Prime Minister. There is a lot of ground to be retaken, however. The White House is reportedly understanding that Brown has to put some distance for domestic reasons. While appreciating their forbearance, the new cabinet should also realize that distancing is essential to rebuild British standing in the rest of the world.

1 comment:

John Trenchard said...

Real allies tell you when you are about to hit the rocks, they do not stand beside you calling "full sail ahead."

and its well documented that Bush told Blair that he didnt need to be involved in Iraq if it was going to damage Blair's position in the UK.

good article by the way. good analysis. it'll be very interesting to see how the Camp David meeting between Brown and Bush turns out this weekend.