Wednesday, 25 May 2011

He likes us, he really likes us!

Barack Obama has just concluded an unprecedented address to both houses of the British Parliament in Westminster Hall, and the British press is already elated. He's the first US president to ever give a speech in this ancient coronation spot of kings and queens. From the adulation being heaped upon him by the British press, one might think Obama had a coronation of his own. But the reaction shows just how much the British, and Europe in general, needed to hear those three magic words from the US president- 'I like you'. After a series of snubs, Europe was beginning to doubt his affection.

Today's speech was the key communication of Obama's six-day, four-nation European fence-mending (and domestic politicking) tour. The centerpiece is tomorrow's G8 meeting in Deauville, France. But today's visit to the UK was all about reassuring the Brits that they still enjoy a 'relationship' with America - though the exact nature of that relationship seems to be being redefined.

The British press and political class spends an inordinate amount of time fretting about whether their country still has a "special relationship" with the United States. In the US, this term is virtually unheard of (which should answer their question). Earlier this year the British media was sent into a tizzy when Obama said during a state visit by French president Nicolas Sarkozy, “We don’t have a stronger friend and stronger ally than Nicolas Sarkozy and the French people.”

But wait, the UK is supposed to be America's number one ally in the world! "It shatters the idea that Britain still has a special relationship with the US," declared the Daily Mirror. The Daily Mail wrote that the words were "evidence that Mr Obama does not cherish the special relationship." An editorial in The Telegraph wrote that the statement, "represents an extraordinary sea change in US foreign policy," adding that "such a remark is not only factually wrong but also insulting to Britain, not least coming just a few years after the French famously knifed Washington in the back over the war in Iraq."

It isn't just Britain that's been sensitive about not receiving enough attention from Obama. Last year when the American president backed out of a planned US-EU summit in Madrid there was a collective freakout by the European media, who declared that Obama was abandoning Europe. There has been a growing idea here that Obama is America's first "Pacific" president, oriented toward Asia because of his background growing up in Hawai and Indonesia. As the BBC's US corresponent Mark Mardell wrote earlier this week,
He is not an East Coast white Anglo-Saxon, like most presidents before him, who saw England as the land of the Mayflower and dreaming spires. Maybe, if you've been told the British drove nails into your grandfather's private parts because they thought he was part of a rebellion, it gives you a different perspective. 
It is certainly true that this administration has taken a different line toward Europe than its predecessor.  While the Bush administration seemed to see Europe a 'vassal continent' that still owed loyalty to America from World War II, the Obama administration has been keen to stress its desires for Europe to assert its independence and play a stronger role in the world on its own. Obama has repeatedly asked European countries to increase their defense budgets and play a greater role in Afghanistan. The Obama administration has been more vocally supportive of the idea of a federal EU than any US administration before them, and they have not played the usual US game of playing European countries against each other. They have expressed concerns about the UK's recent anti-EU moves, such as David Cameron's decision to take the Tories out of the centre-right Europarty and instead form an anti-federalist party. The message from Obama to the UK has been something along the lines of, 'Maybe we should just be friends. I think you're a better match with that Europe gentleman next door. You know, the one in the beret'.

The Brits needed Obama to reassure them that he likes them, and that's what he did. He even had a barbeque with David Cameron to demonstrate that he does not, as some media accounts have claimed, dislike the new British prime minister. But he did not use the term 'special relationship' in his speech today, though he did use it offhand in an earlier press conference. But both sides were today throwing around a new term: 'essential relationship'. Judging by the news broadcasts tonight, the British press seems to like it. It suggests a more realistic assessment of the relationship between the two. They can hardly be considered equals, and any 'partnership' between the two can easily turn into the UK carrying out America's bidding. An 'essential' relationship implies that when the two countries need each other, when it's essential, they will cooperate. But otherwise they will go their own way. It tosses out any notion of a shared kinship or sentiment and instead focuses on the times when the two can cooperate for shared purpose.

Obama was keen to illustrate this idea when he spoke about the Libya operation. Though the Obama administration was notoriously hesitant to participate in that military action, the process was exactly what Obama is looking for from Europe - decisive leadership. The effort was spearheaded by France and the UK, which provided leadership while the US provided the the essential military apparatus. Obama's message seems to be that he does not want the UK as a military vassal state of the United States, he wants it as one part of a strong, decisive European partner - a unified Europe that the US can work with to solve the challenges of the day.

O'Bama in Ireland

Of course I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Obama's first stop before the UK, in Ireland. This first visit had little to do with European fence-mending and everything to do with domestic US politics. 40 million voters in the United States claim Irish ancestry (of course if all of these people really had Irish ancestry Ireland would have been three times the size it was in the early 19th century, but that's another story). A visit to the emerald isle is political paydirt for the American president as he looks toward his reelection battle next year. Unfortunately for the president, a heavy news week in the US meant the visit did not receive the kind of attention it might have otherwise from the US media. I would imagine most Americans are unaware Obama is in Europe at the moment.

The president even visited the birthplace of his distant ancestor in a small village in Ireland. He drank a pint of Guiness (a gift turned down by many presidents before him) and apparently flew away with Ireland's heart in his hands. He seemed to get along swimmingly with the country's new prime minister Enda Kenny as well. But perhaps that's unsurprising. Judging by his previous speeches, Enda's a real fan!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Like most people in the UK. I don't give a shit whether the US like us or not. Europe has so much more to offer the world in the long-run than our money-rich, but culture-poor idiot cousins across the pond. The monkeys who control the media and government here are fawning retards despised by a massive proportion of the general UK public. It would be wise not to view their output as any sort of measure of the current public zeitgeist...