Tuesday 13 January 2009

Obama and the special relationship

Change is coming to America. The difference in style and substance of George Bush and Barack Obama could not be more apparent. Within hours of President Bush’s exit interview with the Washington press corps, where he defended his record of fighting terrorism, Obama announced his plan to shut the Guantanamo Bay detention centre—perhaps the most famous of all Bush’s counterproductive follies.

Change is also coming to the world. Within 18 months, we can anticipate U.S. troops to be predominantly out of Iraq and redeployed in Afghanistan. Direct negotiations between Obama’s administration and Iran, Cuba and even Hamas appear to be in the pipeline. Expect also, a renewed seriousness towards global warming as the world prepares for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December.

So what does this mean for the so-called “special relationship?” Tony Blair received the Presidential Medal of Freedom this week at a quiet ceremony in the East Room of the White House. There can be few who now regard the Bush-Blair friendship as either beneficial to the UK or something that we would want to replicate. Blair’s great mistake, after all, was to forget that good friends can sometimes differ. But he feared the fate of Harold Wilson who was castigated by a similarly egotistic president, LBJ, for disagreeing over Vietnam.

Come Tuesday afternoon, when Obama replaces George Bush in the Oval Office, Gordon Brown will no longer face that dilemma. Brown is so excited by the prospect of new occupancy in the White House that he says, “the special relationship will be one so strong, no power on earth can ever drive us apart.”

The common thread of issues on which he and Obama agree will be similar to that of the Third Way’s two architects, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Although Brown would be unlikely to suggest that he has Obama’s star power, the two see the world through the same prism of moral progressivism. In Brown’s words: “Together we are building the fair society in this place and in this generation. The mission of our times- the fair society, the cause that drives us on.” For Obama: “This is our time — to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth that out of many, we are one.”

But note an air of caution. First, a belligerent president who says that, “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” sees leaders to deal with and leaders to dismiss as irrelevant, morally inferior, or unworthy. A president who sees the two sides to every story has to engage with more than a handful of loyal serfs. Second, while Bush’s presidency quickly became defined by foreign policy, it is unlikely that Obama will be able to focus on anything but the domestic economic recovery for some time to come. Finally, a man of African descent who spent part of his childhood in Asia is more likely, when given time for international relations, to focus on those regions rather than Europe.

So while the bragging rights will certainly be Britain’s when Obama first stops in Europe at the London G-20 summit, expect a very different relationship for the next four years. It will still be special bond but more in the mold of a favoured cousin than that of an unruly brother.

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