April, 1st 2009

Why President Obama's latest diplomatic misstep matters (to me)-- even if some might argue it shouldn't

– Liz Mair

Readers of this blog will know that I've never been 100% sold on the idea that President Obama is  the answer to collective US prayers to have our image overseas vastly improved.  But today, he stepped in it in a way that makes his diplomatic screw ups feel just a tad more personal for me.  Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal's Real Time Economics blog:

The goods news out of London is that Barack Obama has reaffirmed America’s “special relationship” with the U.K. The bad news is that the “affinity and kinship” that the U.S. president spoke of apparently only extends to England.


On Wednesday at a joint conference with Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Mr. Obama made a pass at acknowledging the special relationship. Unfortunately, he inadvertently broke a cardinal protocol by at one stage using England to denote U.K.

“We owe so much to England; that when you come here there’s that sense of familiarity, as well as difference, that makes it just a special place,” he said, leaving Wales, Northern Ireland and Mr. Brown’s home country of Scotland out in the cold.

Yes, indeed-- Obama did break a cardinal protocol-- and I can't help but imagine that even if Brown himself knew what Obama was getting at, the PM was no doubt a tad offended because that's how Scots respond to this kind of thing.  There's a good chance that a good portion of 5 or-so million people, plus descendants who self-describe as "Scottish" in some form are going to be left feeling a little, well, peeved at the President (note the author of the above piece's name).

I know I am.  To a very large extent, I'm descended from Scots-- on my Dad's side most closely.  My Father was raised by his Scottish grandparents, and was, in fact, a supporter of Scottish independence.  But there are plenty of further-removed Scottish ancestors on my Mother's side, too.  And I self-identify as Scottish, in addition to American.  I attended a Scottish Univeristy (this one), I competed in Scottish Highland Dancing growing up, and I'm married to a Scot.  I'm one of those people who, if Scotland doesn't manage anything in a given sports tournament, has been known to resort to cheering for whoever is playing England.  It is not uncommon among Scots to do this, or at least to take glee in England being beaten by [insert name of other country-- the smaller and less apparently proficient at whatever sport is being played, the better-- we really like teams like Macedonia]-- see here.  When I was still working as a lawyer in London during the Euro 2004 tournament, this was by far every Scot in my building's favorite game (mine included).   There is plenty of polling (this being the most stark example) that a large proportion of Scots want either full independence, or at least more autonomy.  And there's a general sense among Scots, and Scottish-descended people who affiliate as Scottish, that throughout history, we've been pretty badly treated by the English.  The films Rob Roy and Braveheart aren't just Hollywood hyperbolically dramatizing things: Some pretty bad stuff has gone down in Scotland, at the hands (and/or orders) of the English (or, say, British monarchs perceived as English first, or second, but Scottish last, if at all).  Edward I does not have a good reputation North of the border, and with good cause, I'd say. [intro]

Those things happened a long time ago, though, you say.  Yes, they did, I respond (about 700 years ago, in Edward's case, to be precise, though there are more recent examples of wrongs, too).  So far as I am aware, there are no cases of Scots being physically threatened, killed, evicted, etc., en masse either by English people or aided and abetted by government figures based in England within recent memory.  If anything, there's a good case to be made that while some of us chafe at the notion of the United Kingdom, and indeed Great Britain, we shouldn't, because it's actually we who took over the English, not the other way around (and, pro-union Scots would argue, it is we who continue to reap the benefits of being part of the UK).  If you're not familiar with what I'm talking about, go re-read your seventeeth century history.  Also, ask someone who's familiar with the British military about the prominence of Scottish soldiers and sailors in the British Armed Forces during, say, the period when the British Empire was being vastly expanded and Britain was at its most powerful (Scots were also pretty important in the context of the industrial revolution, too, which was a period of vast economic expansion for the whole island).  Or consider, even, that the UK has a Scottish Prime Minister, had one before him whose last name belongs to a clan and who attended a Scottish school, and that if the Tories win the next election, the UK will once again have a guy bearing a pretty prominent Scottish last name as Prime Minister, also.  In a lot of ways, it's arguable that Scotland took over England, not vice versa; but at the very least, it's probably fair to say that while there has indeed been some pretty significant suffering of Scots at the hands of the English (or British monarchs easily described in shorthand as English), we've also contributed significantly to making Britain what it is today-- and our dealings with the English haven't always been for the worst.

But that's the other thing that ticks me off so much about what Obama said, actually:

"We owe so much to England."

England, but not Scotland?  Really?  (If you're Welsh, I bet you're thinking something similar).

Living in Virginia, as I do, it's pretty apparent that Scots had a lot to do with the settling of the place I now call home-- probably more than the English (or so some folks around here say, anyway).  I'd bet you that our senior Senator, Jim Webb, would have something to say about Obama's characterization for that reason, but also probably because being an ex-military type, with a good knowledge of military history, he is probably well aware of that importance-of-Scots-in-the-British-military thing I mentioned above (by the way, much of my husband's family have served in the British Armed Forces, and in World War II where the UK and the US were in it together).  We owe a lot in terms of our traditions of liberal democracy to England, that is true (the Magna Carta was a big deal, and it didn't come out of Scotland; we have traditions that apply with regard to Congress that were derived from traditions applicable to the Parliament at Westminster, originally an English institution, now a British one).  But anyone who has studied the Scottish Enlightenment knows that Scots, and Scotland, have had a pretty major impact on philosophy, economics, science, and much more, in many regards that are directly pertinent to our lives here in the US.  Adam Smith, probably the best known and earliest proponent of capitalism, our economic system, was a Scot.

Not to turn this into a cheerleading session for Scots, Scotland and all things Scottish by any stretch of the imagination-- the point I'm trying to make here is merely that this was a much bigger misstep than some people will read it as.  Scots have tended to feel that we don't have a lot, apart from national pride, and bitterness towards the English (we have a lot of the latter).  With one little comment (remember, Mr. President, nuance is important in foreign policy, and in diplomacy, sometimes it really is the little things), Obama did something to diminish the former while inflaming the latter-- and he probably offended a fair few Scottish-Americans (and yes, also the Welsh and Welsh-Americans and the Irish and Irish-Americans, many of whom, Lord knows, hate the English more than any of us ever could), too.  And all when a quick visit by a staffer to Google Maps could have prevented him from putting his foot in it...


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