UPDATE: Welcome TNR Plank people. Nice to see y’all again…
Gordon Brown’s approach to the United States has followed the traditional “Good cop, Bad Cop” approach. Having let his subordinates off the leash to disparage US foreign policy and hint that Washington should no longer be able to count on whole-hearted British support, Brown today played the role of the reassuring and conciliatory policeman who just wants to be your friend.
The Prime Minister’s visit to Camp David followed criticism of the US from Brown’s protege Douglas Alexander and Mark Malloch Brown, formerly head of the UN Development Programme and newly installed at the foreign office. Though the White House surely understands that Brown needed to show a degree of independence for domestic political reasons, it was still irritated by the harshness of the anti-Americanism emanating from Whitehall.
Alexander had praised “soft power” and said Britain should not measure a nation’s might by “what they could destroy”. This all drew an unusually dyspeptic response from The Weekly Standard’s Irwin Stelzer, who argued that this “will come as a surprise to those who remember that it was the destructive power of the American military that helped prevent Alexander from growing up a German-speaker.” Clearly, there’s no statute of limitations on this sort of thing, is there?
The criticism had a purpose, however. It allowed the Prime Minister to fly in to calm the troubled Atlanticist waters and do so with lofty, statesmanlike assurance. “All challenges can best be met when the united states and the united kingdom work together” he said. Just as importantly he reminded the US that “We are at one in fighting the battle against terrorism."
Bush got straight to the point: “Everybody’s wondering whether or not the Prime Minister and I were able to find common ground, to get along, to have a meaningful discussion and the answer is: absolutely.”
Towards the end of their joint press conference at Camp David the President joked that Brown had not, in one respect, lived up to his advance billing: “He’s not the dour Scotsman or the awkward Scotsman that you described. He’s actually a humorous Scotsman.” Who knew?
For his part Brown joked that the President had perhaps been given too keen an insight into the Scottish psyche when he attended a lengthy – and presumably splendidly gloomy – Church of Scotland service when he visited the country as a teenager. (As not a lot of people know, Bush may have actually spent more time in Scotland than any other country, thanks to Texan-Caledonian oil connections that led to him spending a summer in Scotland when a teenager).
Bush even went to far as to call Brown an optimist (!). Unlike many world leaders, apparently, the new Prime Minister is “a glass half-full kind of guy.”
Brown was characteristically detailed while Bush preferred to speak in general terms and did his best to lighten the mood.
Even so, this was a different kind of summit meeting, one that the British were keen to stress was concerned with substance, not style. That extended as far as the menu for lunch yesterday. The two leaders sat down for cheeseburgers and French fries, followed by banana pudding. The culinary symbolism reinforced the summit’s message: this was a business meeting. No fuss, no great ceremony.
Whereas Tony Blair became a celebrity figure in the United States – even making a guest appearance on “The Simpsons” – Brown’s visit had not attracted much attention. God knows how many Americans could even name the new Prime Minister. On his first visit to Camp David – for the now famous "Colgate Summit" – Blair sported a pair of what Sir Christopher Meyer, the former UK ambassador to the US, memorably described as "ball-crushingly tight dark-blue corduroys". Brown preferred a dark suit and dark tie.
Brown struck all the right notes. In an article for The Washington Post he ticked all the right historical notes, citing Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan in a bid to reassure Washington that Britain remained utterly committed to what Brown called our “most important bilateral relationship.” Brown referred to Churchill twice more during yesterday’s press conference.
The two men did talk in more general terms too. Bush said that he had got the measure of Brown’s mettle by the Prime Minister’s response to “unspeakable tragedy” (the death of his first child) and how he felt that Brown’s character had been “strengthened” not “weakened” by that terrible experience. I can’t imagine Brown much cared to hear the President talk about this, but there you go.
Brown left Camp David for meetings with Congressional leaders in Washington, before travelling to New York City where he will make a speech at the United Nations. That speech will allow the Prime Minister to stress his multi-lateral instincts; at Camp David he recommitted the United Kingdom to the transatlantic “special relationship”. How long the tension between those conflicting ambitions can remain unresolved will be one of the great tests of Brown’s ministry.
On the detail: Brown was careful not to offer an open-ended commitment to Iraq. This was sensible. In any case, he’s helped wreck the army so that it’s incapable of operating in more than one major theatre at any given time. It was no great surprise to hear Brown make repeated references to economic development in Africa and elsewhere. I’ll bet that some, maybe even most, of the "solutions" and "ideas" Bush praised were rooted in Brown’s years as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Heck, he even talked about a "Basra Economic Development Agency".
Tellingly, Brown referred to Afghanistan as the "front line" against terrorism, though he later clarfieid that he’d meant to say that it was the front line against the Taliban. Nonetheless, the slip was telling: though he offered no details and no timetable Britain is preparing to reduce its commitment to Iraq while stepping up its presence in Afghanistan. Increasingly that’s where the action lies for Her Majesty’s forces.
But after all is said and done, Brown is right to stress that the US has no better friend than the UK. Despite the rhetorical smokescreen laid down by his subordinates the Prime Minister has sent a number of signals to tell the Americans that he should be judged by what he does, not by how his government sounds. Britain has confirmed that the US may use the Menwith Hill air base in Yorkshire for its ambitious missile defence shield. Equally significantly Brown revealed that he is comfortable with the idea of projecting British “hard power” around the globe: last week he confirmed that the new Queen Elizabeth class of aircraft carriers would indeed be built.
The cast may change and the lines may delivered with a slightly different emphasis or accent, but the US-UK story remains the same.