New British PM No Lapdog for Bush
Wants good relations with America, but sees U.S. foreign policy as liability
By Richard Walker
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is charting a new path in foreign affairs, but no one should construe that to be the end of the “special relationship” between the United States and Britain. It simply mirrors Brown’s private statements and conviction that, as the Bush era comes to an end, he must respond to a resounding global clamor for change.
He also wants to distance himself from his predecessor, Tony Blair, who was so closely linked to the Bush White House and the war in Iraq that when he left office in 2007 he was very unpopular. His closeness to President Bush has caused leaders to oppose Blair for first president of the European Union. Blair’s opponents come from both ends of the political spectrum, with both supporters of a strong EU and Euroskeptics denouncing his proposed candidacy.
Both the new PM and Blair admire the United States and its people. Brown often holidays in Cape Cod and is known to have good relations with leading Democrats. He has more than once declared that he will not radically alter the historic relationship between Britain and America.
Nevertheless, he has also expressed a desire to manage his foreign policy in a way that places greater emphasis on diplomacy and less on the need to use force, or the threat of force, which he believes has defined the Bush White House.
On issues like Guantanamo and the rendition of terror suspects to secret prisons, or to intelligence services in countries like Syria, Morocco and Egypt, Brown has distanced himself from Bush. And, when it comes to relations with the UN, the new PM has been supportive rather than confrontational, arguing that it is the most important diplomatic body on the globe. He is more pro-European than Blair and believes Britain needs to form better relations with its European partners.
With respect to Iraq, he is eager to get British troops out. He angered the White House by not discussing troop withdrawals with General David Petraeus. Instead, he announced plans for troop withdrawals from Basra when it suited him. On the matter of Afghanistan, he has not seen eye to eye with the U.S., believing, as he does about most conflicts, that economic aid and major reconstruction policies should be at the top of the agenda for defeating terrorism. In particular, he has placed greater emphasis on British troops in Afghanistan forging better links with the locals and where necessary arming militias to fight the Taliban.
His Afghan policy has led to tough exchanges between London and Washington. Brown approaches many international issues with the eye of an economist—a position that has not endeared him to those who think he needs to be tougher in projecting military options. Some defense experts think he is oblivious to the need for Britain to spend more of its GDP on its military and on counter-terrorism agencies.
Those same experts warn that his tendency to see the war on terror through the prism of economics could be his undoing and could have dangerous consequences. They also argue that he lacks serious foreign policy experience and could find it hard to respond to a major international crisis in the Middle East.
Brown is difficult to read. As Britain’s longest serving chancellor of the exchequer under Blair, he and Blair had a rocky relationship. Their private disagreements were often tabloid fodder. Former Conservative PM John Major is on record saying he is not one of the only six people in the world who really know Brown. While Brown may be dour compared with the ever smiling Blair, he can be ruthless in his pursuit of what he wants. He has a formidable intellect and has little time for the cult of celebrity that Blair embraced. His energies are singularly devoted to his job, thereby allowing for few distractions.
There is a perception in some circles that when Blair was PM, Brown cleverly kept his fingerprints off the Iraq issue by never confronting his boss when there were major disputes in 10 Downing Street and even resignations by cabinet colleagues. Brown tended to concentrate on economic issues. Brown has begun to separate his foreign policy from that of the Bush White House. His supporters say he is merely waiting on the arrival of a new U.S. president to jump-start the London-Washington relationship and put it back in shape.
In the meantime, most observers say he will do nothing to undermine the U.S. or to fracture the alliance. His posture will be more of a wait-and-see strategy.
He has lost no time demonstrating that he intends to build better relations in Asia, especially with India and China. He has talked of restructuring the UN rather than attacking it, which was a familiar tactic of the Bush White House. On a recent trip he promised India that he would urge expansion of the UN Security Council’s Permanent Five of Britain, Russia, France, the U.S. and China to include India, Brazil, Japan, Germany and at least one African nation. He made it clear however that any expansion of the Permanent Five would not accord any new members veto powers.
He said it was also vital to include India in the G8 and to add other nations like Mexico, South Africa, Brazil and China.
Brown’s professed admiration for American history and its people, as well as his close links with leading U.S. politicians, will never take him too far from the “special relationship.” But between now and the arrival of a new president, he may go it alone on many foreign policy issues. In general, his style was always going to be different from that of Blair, but, he recognizes, as did the British leaders before him, that the alliance with the U.S. is one
of Britain’s strengths, no matter how close Britain moves towards an ever-expanding Europe.
Richard Walker is the nom de plume of a former mainstream news producer who now writes for AFP.
(Issue #8, February 25, 2008)