European Affairs

Can “we” get any of the other NATO allies to help deliver security, aid and reconstruction to the people of Afghanistan so that they don’t turn against NATO troops? Is there anyway to kick start the Middle East peace process despite the chaos in the Palestinian territories? And is there anything at all to be done about President Vladimir Putin’s increasingly anti-Western policies?

As the variety of these agenda items demonstrate, the commonality of interests and objectives for London and Washington covers most of the world. Indeed, the “special relationship” – much maligned these days in some quarters but obviously very much alive – is more a function of the permanent bureaucracy than the personalities of the leaders of the two countries. Whether it is the unparalleled sharing of information, sources and analysis between the CIA and the British secret service, the extensive joint training, personal ties and comfort level of the U.S. and UK military establishments, the shared experiences of British and American diplomats all around the world, or just the common language and historical comradeship of the two peoples, there are no two countries in the world that work as more of a team.

The personal relationship between a Prime Minister and a President can affect the style and pace of this teamwork, especially its public presentation, but the fundamentals are deeper than even the biggest personalities of U.S. and British leaders.

Indeed, the personalities of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown couldn’t be more different. One is, like Bill Clinton, a great communicator who seems to love the camera. The other is more cerebral and shy – qualities that are often underestimated in superficial characterizations of him as simply a “taciturn Scot” or “dour Presbyterian.” And Blair and Brown have not seen eye to eye on Iraq, which unfortunately serves as a kind of barometer of anyone’s foreign policy outlook these days. Brown supported Blair – but not with great enthusiasm and apparently with a heavy dose of skepticism about a plan for building a democracy on the back of a brutal dictatorship without much international support for the nation-building involved.

As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Brown has won plaudits for an unparalleled run of prosperity for the British economy. While serving as Chancellor (and maintaining his position as the presumptive heir to Blair), Brown has seemed wary of foreign affairs, limiting his statements and actions to development in Africa and a key role in eliminating the debt of less developed countries around the world. He is a believer in globalization and has much in common with America’s push for privatization and a freer economy. So those issues should go smoothly with Washington. Problems could arise, of course, if Brown’s intensity regarding aid to the developing world and America’s relative stinginess on the subject come into conflict in the run up to a G-8 summit or as the result of a calamity in Africa. You could imagine Brown stubbornly holding up agreement in the hopes of pushing Bush to real commitments in the area of foreign aid – something Blair avoided in his dealings with successive U.S. administrations.

Blair is comfortable and confident in leading international responses to big crises and had a good track record doing it – at least until Iraq. He joined with President Bill Clinton in demanding capitulation from Slobodan Milosevic over Kosovo, sent an elite British military force to bring stability in place of chaos in Sierra Leone and made the most powerful international argument for overthrowing the Taliban in Afghanistan. This has brought him a form of confidence that it will take years for Brown to acquire – if indeed he does manage to acquire it on the job.

It is also hard to imagine Brown having the same seemingly messianic commitment that Blair has to democracy in the Middle East. In their famous private exchange at the St. Petersburg G-8 summit in July, when Bush was caught on camera calling out “Yo, Blair,” the British Labour Party leader seemed to match Bush – neocon argument for neocon argument – in explaining why Israel had to have full support in its assault on Lebanon. They agreed that anti-democrats (Syria, Tehran, Hezbollah and Hamas) were trying to undermine a new, more democratic Middle East stirring in the tumult of Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Iraq. Notwithstanding the absurdity of this over-simplification, Blair seemed to believe it. Brown surely wouldn’t. For one thing, he will have witnessed how little Blair managed to get back from Bush in return for his readiness to spend political capital swinging Britain behind U.S. initiatives. In addition, Brown does not seem to have the same zealous commitments that Blair often appeared to share with the Bush administration. On the contrary, when it comes to the major strategic and foreign policy issues, Brown appears to have an open mind. Will he develop strong views on the Iranian nuclear dilemma, the Middle East peace process, or the rollback of civil liberties and democratic values in Russia? Nobody knows.

What is knowable about Brown is that his public compass has been mainly economic and that he is decidedly pro- American. In his formal duties, Brown has consistently worked closely and well with his counterparts in the Bush Treasury Department. More privately, he regularly summers in Cape Cod and consults regularly with Clinton-era Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, and he has close political ties to many other key figures in the Democratic Party. Certainly, former Vice President Al Gore can be expected to play a prominent role working with Brown on global warming issues that the latter says require urgent moves toward instituting a global emissions-trading system.

On the broad subject of Europe’s development and role in the world, Brown apparently does not share Blair’s hopes (now dashed in the wake of Iraq) of seeing Britain lead the EU to new international authority. True, Brown has always regarded himself as a ‘pro-European’ in the sense of seeking to lower national barriers among member states, and he has never seemed to have the same emotional attachment to the sovereignty of the British Parliament that characterizes many Euro-skeptics in Britain, particularly the English (as distinct notably from the Scots and the Welsh.) While famously wary of the attractions of the euro in place of the British pound, he accepts that Britain gains economically through its membership in the EU. But he seems quite hostile to the European Commission as an institution. For example, he has never made much effort to befriend commissioners in Brussels. He has never championed the Commission as an agent for liberalization in the EU nations. He is open about finding himself bored by Council of Ministers meetings: he sometimes skips them and, if he does turn up, he often leaves early.

On even broader geopolitical issues, now that Bush has diluted U.S. unilateralism after his re-election, Brown should be largely comfortable with Washington’s new-found appreciation of diplomacy and coalition-building with respect to issues like North Korea and Iran.

What won’t continue under Gordon Brown is the kind of tag-team public diplomacy that Bush and Blair have delivered around the world. Bush sets the policy, and then Blair presents the best possible public case for it. Especially in the context of Iraq and the Middle East, Brown is likely to be more cautious. While British diplomats will still work side by side with Americans, the two leaders will have less shared experiences to rely on and probably some subtle differences in world view.

The open question is whether Brown will adopt Blair’s basic approach to dealing with George Bush. Blair has suffered mightily for his commitment to rarely breaking with Bush in public and to giving Washington unqualified support up front and then trying to modify the policy from a position of insider.

That is something that even Margaret Thatcher didn’t always do. She publicly demanded and obtained a dramatic scaling-back of the Reagan Administration’s Star Wars program, lest it generate a backlash in U.S.-Soviet relations and upset the Cold War balance that Europeans had come to appreciate.

If there is another controversial world crisis in Bush’s last two years – and there may not be – events may push Brown to adopt a different style. My guess is that he will choose to acknowledge in a respectful and realistic way, that as close as Britain and the U.S. are, there are still some areas of significant disagreement.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 7, Issue number 3-4 in the Fall/Winter of 2006.