Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Mr Cameron goes to Washington

The challenges for an incoming PM are many and various, but one that has become almost a ritual gauntlet to run is the first official visit to see the incumbent US President on his turf.

But as Robin Niblett describes, it isn't just a ceremonial procedure such as the rounds of investitures and bestowances given by a new regime to reward favours rendered by friends who got them there and pay-offs to former combatants who tried to prevent the change-over. No, it is a defining moment which sets the terms and outlines the parameters for our foreign policy.

Ever since the lend-lease agreement was agreed during 1941 to underwrite the winning of the twentieth century's major conflict, British finances have been dependent on the credit-worthiness of the American consumer and the reliability of the dollar as the world's reserve currency. All overseas action by Britain needed to be given the once-over by the cohorts of analysts who populate the US defense establishment.

And so it was on occasions such as the invasion of the Falkland Islands by the Argentine military junta, when Ronald Reagan was convinced to reverse the initial inclination to turn a blind eye, providing logistical support to the British task force and refuse export permits to various arms the Argentines were depending on. The USA was then the decisive actor even while resting out of sight in the wings.

The combined financial muscle of Wall Street and Main Street continues to provide Barack Obama with the greatest platform among world leaders, but since the final repayment on that original Lend-Lease Agreement was completed at the end of 2006 the powers have been in increasing flux as relationships have awaited the coming new order.

Sole ownership of the 'superpower' tag has turned the US (and it's military-industrial complex) into the prime hate figure for terrorists and anti-establishment figures everywhere, while the emergence of the so-called BRIC economies is transforming international relations into a new multi-polar world which should have huge beneficial implications for global security and wealth.

Obama remains the leader of the free world only while he retains the ability to forge an agreed direction - and this requires the acquiesence of his international partners.

So talk about a 'special relationship' tends to be irksome for British and American leaders alike in the way it creates an implied artificial constraint on the freedom of action - and freedom to reach agreement - on both sides of the Atlantic.

Whatever the political relationship of the time (rare is it a leader who can rely on partisan coalignment throughout their term at the top) the shared cultural history does provide shared reference points which breaks ice faster than, well, an unsinkable mega-liner going down with thousands of lives (this struck me as all too easily overlooked when I read how the Japanese footballer and fully paid-up member of the international class Keisuke Honda was described by his Russian coach Leonid Slutsky as having a lot yet to learn: "he didn't even know who the band Queen was!").

So although many argue it is against all our interests for the US-UK axis to be joined at the head or the heart, there is an obvious connection which does ensure we remain bound at the hip and will be the first to stand 'shoulder to shoulder'.

Commentators will contend who needs the other more as global relationships develop and interests proliferate and diverge, but although they are paid to create controversy and sell papers that is so far from beside the point as to be an indictment on their whole industry. The single important fact for Prime Minister and the President to acknowledge is how the eternally shifting sands of international diplomacy changes the emphasis required within each of their mutually interdependent roles so that they can adjust their plays appropriately: our connection is not a commandment set in stone from on high, it is a dynamic testament scrawled in the blood of our casualties.

Tony Blair got into trouble because he was quick to pretend we are a partnership of moral equals, thereby leading to his perception as George W. Bush's 'poodle' when his claims for WMD and market economics were exposed as a fraud. A generation earlier Margaret Thatcher's relationship with Ronald Reagan was famously even more cosy as she propounded the illusory independence of our nuclear deterrence and the all-conquering good of deregulation. Both Thatcher and Blair succumbed to pressure to preach international economies with national defences. This created a natural friction which can be pointed to as the spark that lead to their implosion.

So the mood music surrounding David Cameron's appearance alongside Mr Obama was certainly remarkable. And it was remarkable for two distinct reasons.

The first was that he described the relationship between our two countries as a coalition, with Britain as the junior partner. And the second was how the choreography and familiar affability between the two men at the press conference was almost identical to the striking appearance of the Conservative leader with his LibDem deputy in the Downing Street Rose Garden when their coalition was presented to the assembled media.

Nick Clegg is noticably invisible from the trip to Washington, but the dynamic between Mr Cameron and himself is definitely a point of note whose public success the PM has clearly been studiously revising with a view to recreating a more healthy foreign policy environment.

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