There are three words to describe the White House’s reception for the British Prime Minister last week: public relations disaster. Gordon Brown arrived in Washington as the first leader from across the Atlantic to greet the President on U.S. soil since his inauguration, but his visit to the Oval Office left a sour taste with the British media and millions of television viewers watching from the UK.
Diplomacy and decorum matter in affairs of state, especially when it involves the two most powerful nations in the world, with a close-knit partnership that has lasted for six decades. The prime minister, however, was denied a joint press conference with the president as well as an official dinner, and received the kind of welcome normally reserved for the leader of some far-flung South Sea island. The White House agreed to a small “pool spray” for journalists in the Oval Office, but much of the British press corps, including Washington correspondents from some of the biggest London papers, were kept out.
During a brief question and answer session, the president appeared somewhat bored and uninterested, and his answers seemed forced, especially when describing the alliance with Britain. There was no repeat of the kind of camaraderie that was on display whenever George W. Bush met with Tony Blair.
Even the ritual exchange of gifts was poorly handled by the White House. Brown brought several for the new president, including a first edition of the seven volume official biography of Sir Winston Churchill by Sir Martin Gilbert, as well as a pen holder carved from the timbers of HMS Gannett, a ship used by the British to combat slavery in the 19th Century. In return, Obama presented his guest with 25 DVDs, ranging from “Psycho” to “ET.” And in case Brown is the last person in the galaxy not to have seen “Star Wars,” that was thrown in too. Quite what the prime minister made of the Wizard of Oz is unknown, but the London Daily Mail described the gift from the president as “about as exciting as a pair of socks.”
Gordon Brown has been a largely ineffectual, dull and uncharismatic leader, and his historically-low approval ratings are richly deserved. Unless there is a dramatic reversal in the polls he will certainly be replaced as Prime Minister within 15 months by David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party. However, although clearly a lame duck, Brown is still the leader of America’s closest ally on the world stage, and represents 60 million Britons and thousands of British soldiers who fight bravely alongside their American counterparts on the battlefields of southern Afghanistan. He should have been given a dignified welcome that fully reflected this.
The Obama-Brown White House debacle underscored a bigger problem than just a lack of diplomatic sensibility. It was symbolic of a Special Relationship that is under threat on several fronts, from indifference towards Britain on the part of the new leadership in Washington to a decline in British defense spending and the gradual erosion of British sovereignty within Europe. The Obama administration has even gone to the extraordinary length of “recalibrating” its description of the Special Relationship as a “special partnership.”
The Anglo-American alliance has never been mentioned in a major speech by Obama, and the White House and Executive Branch are looking increasingly to continental Europe and not to Britain to address the biggest international issues of the day. Vice President Joe Biden did not even acknowledge the UK in his keynote address to the Munich Security Conference last month, but made a point of supporting French ambitions to rejoin NATO’s military command structures, as well as a greater European Union defense identity. Last Friday, Hillary Clinton was lauded by Hans-Gert Pottering, president of the European Parliament, for sounding “like a European” when she visited Brussels on her first trip to Europe as Secretary of State.
There is every sign that the Obama administration is embarking on a love affair with Europe, while wooing the Russians on the side, one that will ultimately end in tears. It’s easy to be cheered to the rafters in Germany or Belgium, and bask in the glow of adoration from countries that fought tooth and nail against the United States over the war in Iraq — it’s quite another to get Europeans to lay down their lives to defend the cause of freedom.
As the new U.S. administration is discovering with the NATO operation in Afghanistan, it is the English-speaking countries that are bearing the overwhelming brunt of the fighting and the casualties, and there is no sign whatsoever that this will change now there is a new leader in the White House. Hopefully it won’t take very long for President Obama and his advisers to understand that the Anglo-American alliance is at the very heart of the free world, and that the Special Relationship is absolutely vital to American interests.