March, 8th 2009

On Obama and Brown

– Liz Mair

So, chatter continues about the apparent "snubbing" by President Obama of UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown.  I haven't written about this as yet, but as one of a handful of US-UK dual national bloggers, I keep getting asked to weigh in.  So, here goes.

First, here is some of what has been written about the apparent snubbing-- note that the below comes from journalists with British broadsheet papers, and not their somewhat more excitable tabloid counterparts.

Toby Harnden, writing at his Daily Telegraph (i.e., conservative-leaning paper's) blog: So farewell then, Gordon Brown. The Prime Minister has now departed these shores after a two-day visit marked by diplomatic acrimony over the scale and extent of his welcome from President Barack Obama and a well-received speech before Congress...  Obama "congratulated the Prime Minister on his speech to Congress", though it's doubtful he watched it. When White House mouthpiece Robert Gibbs was asked about it this afternoon, he responded: "I didn't see the speech.  I don't know that the President saw it. I don't know that anybody at the NSC saw it"...  The White House is irritated that the British seemed ungrateful about the way Brown was treated - their view is that Obama uttered every platitude about the "special relationship" that could be imagined, gave Brown lunch and invited the the press into the Oval Office and gave them 22 minutes of his precious time.

Toby, previously: [I]t was hard not to feel a teeny weeny bit sorry for Gordon Brown today. There we press were this morning in the freezing cold outside the White House watching increasingly frantic British officials trying to salvage what they could from a visit that was clearly going awry...  A press conference that had apparently been promised had been cancelled at the last minute due to the snow (on the ground for 24 hours and forecast several days earlier). Now the British diplomats were faced with a situation of no more than 16 of the 33 press who'd flown over from London even seeing President Barack Obama... But if this was a cause for disgruntlement among us reporters just imagine what it must have felt like for poor Mr Brown, who was desperately hoping for big dollops of reflected glory from the new President. Having watched for a decade as Tony Blair was feted by Bill Clinton and then George W. Bush as the undisputed First Friend, Mr Brown was facing the possibility of a public humiliation...  After years of having the red carpet rolled out for the Prime Ministers whenever they visited Washington, this one is now learning that he'll have to wait outside for his turn along with everyone else. It certainly feels like a new era in Washington for transatlantic relations.

Toby, yet more previouslyMr Brown might be forgiven for thinking that his friend, rival and predecessor Tony Blair would not have been treated the same way by his bosom buddy President George W. Bush. After all, there are 132 rooms in the White House at least some of which, presumably, are currently free of snow... On the other hand, President Obama is terribly busy this Tuesday. The White House schedule tells us that he is delivering remarks at the Department of Transportation to deliver remarks about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and is also speaking at the Department of Interior to mark its 160th anniversary.  There's a conflab with Pentagon chief Bob Gates. Oh, and Mr Obama will also meet "a delegation from the Boy Scouts of America and receive their 2008 Report to the Nation". in the Oval Office.  Mr Brown might lament that despite the so-called "special relationship" Britain is now getting the same treatment as the President of Uruguay but he need not despair. I'm told there's a chance he might get drinks with Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday evening.

And for some philosophical balance, here's Andrew Rawnsley writing for the left-leaning Guardian (in, it must be said, a more positive piece than anything Toby wrote, in which he discusses gifts that were exchanged): In return for that historically resonant and tastefully symbolic token, the Americans presented the prime minister with what smelt like a panic buy, a DVD collection of 25 American movies. Amazon will sell you a box set of 100 Hollywood classics for $17.99. It is not so much the cheap price tag that is wounding to British pride; it is the lack of thought for their visitor displayed by the White House. A film collection which includes Raging Bull and Gone with the Wind might be loosely metaphorical of Gordon Brown's political career and what the financial crisis has done to it. But films are not his thing. When he has the time to get in front of a television, the prime minister prefers to watch sport.

And back on the right-leaning side of things, here's the Telegraph's Iain Martin: How would Barack Obama handle Gordon Brown's visit to Washington? The answer, sadly, is badly...  from the start of the trip, Team Obama behaved as though it simply could not be bothered having the British – their only allies of consequence in Afghanistan – in town. At first, there was to be no formal press conference; then the Americans agreed to a short Q&A in the Oval Office. But Number 10 had to beg for it. Throughout, Obama looked, to this observer, indifferent to the whole business.  And then there were the presents. The Browns had taken a degree of care, arriving with a pen holder made from the timbers of HMS Gannet, an anti-slave trade ship, and a first edition of Gilbert's seven volume biography of Churchill. The Obama daughters received dresses and necklaces chosen by Sarah Brown.  Did the Obamas spend more than a few seconds thinking about gifts in return? For the Brown sons there were matching models of the President's helicopter, suggesting a last-minute dash by an aide to the White House gift shop. The grown-up Browns were even less lucky: they received a box of 25 DVDs, including ET, The Wizard of Oz and Psycho.  Small details, yes. But in diplomacy the micro-detail is often key to understanding the bigger picture.

So, then, a visit that wasn't exactly a home-run, so far as the US' closest ally is concerned... though, as a Brown detractor, I do feel compelled to point out that given Labour's terrible ratings (as of last week, support for the Conservatives sat at 44 %, Labour at 28 % and the Lib Dems at 17%), Brown might consider it something of a moral victory that he was, in fact, treated with some degree of seriousness.

That's a line that I've seen echoed also, including by some of the writers quoted above-- but speaking of seriousness, let's have some more.  Irrespective of whether Brown is on his way out or not, irrespective of whether Brown seemed a tad groupie-ish about a visit with Obama, irrespective of whether it seems like the oft-discussed "special relationship" between the US and the UK gets fetishized and is closer to a quaint talking point than it is a reality (as it was in, say, the 1980's or earlier), and irrespective of whether Brits might be fairly accused of coming off a little right now as a nation of jealous ex-girlfriends, the fact is that it's important how we treat the British Prime Minister.  And that he wasn't treated quite the way he probably should have been during his visit-- and that matters. [intro]

It doesn't matter because the US is incapable of getting anything done without the UK (though the UK has stood by us when others would not, for better or for worse, I would argue-- just consider Iraq).  It doesn't matter because the US and the UK exercise equivalent power on the international stage (the UK hasn't been the most powerful country on Earth for some time now; we've been the sole superpower for what seems like many years).  It matters because one of the things Americans-- I would argue almost all Americans-- wanted, heading into the last election was a bettering of America's image abroad.  Both John McCain and Barack Obama talked about it, though Obama arguably focused on it more (I think both because it fit with his "change" theme and because McCain was a more familiar, and for that matter a quite well-liked figure, internationally, walking into the election).  As such, him appearing to snub Brown is a particularly big deal.  This is not someone who cavalierly made clear that he didn't care what foreign leaders or their citizenries thought.  This is someone who explicitly argued that he did care, we should care, and that the US was going to reach out.  The way the Brown visit was handled, unfortunately, doesn't look like reaching out or trying to work with others and behave in a less unilateral, egotistical, others-be-damned manner.  It looks a little, well... Bushesque.  Except, of course, that Bush and Brown's predecessor, Tony Blair, were personally close-- so what transpired last week certainly would not have between the two of them.  Nonetheless, it's easy to imagine that it could have happened between, say, Bush and another European leader of some sort. 

I don't think that's what people who wanted a change in America's relations with other countries were voting for when they pulled the lever for Obama last November.  Setting aside that they weren't voting for supposed snubbing of foreign leaders, I'd also add that I don't think they were voting for a President whose aides, according to the Telegraph, "seemed unfamiliar with the expectations that surround a major visit by a British prime minister," and who, according to "a well-connected Washington figure, who is close to members of Mr Obama's inner circle,"  "had failed so far to 'even fake an interest in foreign policy.'"  I think after eight years of what often wound up looking like foreign policy and diplomatic incompetence, those looking for change where our international relations were concerned might have been voting for staff who had a clue how we typically treat visiting Prime Ministers, and a President who can, at least, put on a decent show.

This isn't the first example of Obama rankling folks overseas and their leaders, either.  The insertion of "Buy American" language in the stimulus bill (which Obama clearly supported)-- language that echoes the kind of proposals Obama campaigned on last year-- ticked off the Canadians and the EU, among others, earlier this year.  His (and Hillary Clinton's) anti-trade rhetoric during the Democratic primary also ticked off both parties.  And Colombian President Alvaro Uribe didn't much like some of what Obama had to say about the Colombian Free Trade Agreement.  And then there was this story from last year about how Europeans were worried about Obama's apparent plans with regard to Iran (not the only story I recall reading to that effect during the campaign, either).

Listen, I'm not arguing that the US, our President, or his staff should set foreign policy and efforts at diplomacy with the sole, or even main, objective of making people like us.  A lot of people in a lot of places are going to have a problem with the US no matter how nice we are or how much we make an effort to listen to what they have to say, unless we make serious compromises in our foreign policy that most reasonable people would argue are wholly nuts and unadvisable.  What I am saying is that Obama used a lot of campaign rhetoric that he's not quite living up to right now-- and that that's a disappointment.  I'm a realist; I believe that US foreign policy should aim to further our own interests, and I'd define them more narrowly than a lot of neoconservatives and liberals; I believe that a foreign policy like that is never going to result in 100% of the world liking us, or even 50% of it liking us.  But I also believe it's possible to have a foreign policy that doesn't subordinate US interests to foreign ones that still involves better outreach to the world, better efforts at diplomacy, and more appearances given off of caring what others think and wanting to find ways to work with them.  I'm not sure Obama's quite doing that, when one looks at practical examples like the Brown visit, or some of his pronouncements on foreign policy.  What I know he's unlikely to do, if he keeps on this particular form for the next four years, is vastly improve America's image abroad.  Perhaps he was silly and naive to promise that (I actually think there's a fair case to be made there).  But that's what he promised-- and he should be making more of an effort than was evidently made last week to deliver... for political, if not foreign relations-based, reasons.


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