In terms of timing, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s US visit this week is not exactly propitious. Coinciding with Pope Benedict XVI ’s first visit to the US, the British leader’s trip got short shrift at home and abroad. As the British daily, “The Guardian,” wrote on Wednesday, the “US prepares a rapturous welcome for world leader. And the PM is there too.”
Due to this unfortunate coincidence, the British leader is expected to deliver a major speech on foreign policy speech at Harvard University Friday - just as the pope is scheduled to address the UN General Assembly.
The main goal of Brown’s visit is to erase memories of his July 2007 Camp David visit, when as a new prime minister, he appeared somewhat uncomfortable and at pains to emerge from the shadow of his predecessor, Tony Blair.
Brown’s latest trip has been billed as an occasion for Great Britain to reaffirm its special relationship with the United States at a time when other European nations – such as France and Italy – adopt more pro-American positions.
“The ‘special relationship’ is a bit like the stock market,” said Christopher MacCrae, retired ambassador and professor at the Paris-based American Graduate School of International Relations and Diplomacy in an interview with FRANCE 24. “Its course goes up or down depending on historical events.”
An indestructible bridge between America and Europe?
Its course could very well go up, judging by Brown’s tone in an interview with the American CBS News on the eve of his departure.
“I feel I can bring Europe and America closer together for the future,” he said. “That will be to the advantage of all of us, as we strive to deal with economic problems, climate change and help make for a more peaceful world in the future.”
“Brown is an Atlanticist,” said Jean-Claude Sergeant, professor of British Studies at the Paris-based Université Sorbonne Nouvelle. “He has adopted the American economic credo and spends all his vacations at Cape Cod, and not in Barbados or Tuscany, which is a funny mix for a Presbyterian from the old Labour school.”
The close Anglo-American collaboration had turned sour following the British plan to withdrawal their troops from Iraq, four years after providing unwavering support to the 2003 invasion.
But recent fighting between Shia militias and Iraqi troops near the southern Iraqi city of Basra, where the British military contingent is based, contributed to delaying the planned redeployment.
Observers also agree that Great Britain has little to fear from France’s new-found Atlanticist ambitions, as illustrated by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s expressed wish to re-enter NATO’s command cell.
“France cannot imagine replacing Great Britain in the heart of Americans,” said Sergeant.
Brown and Bush face uncertain future
While Brown is at pains to avoid the “Bush’s poodle” dig that his predecessor suffered, the two heads of state do share a common plight – plummeting popularity and economic woes.
The fight to stave off the global financial crisis tops the agenda Thursday, when Brown meets Bush, before holding talks with US Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke the following day.
On Tuesday, the Bank of England said it was injecting 15 billion pounds in the British banking system in order to lower interest rates and safeguard access to credit, thereby propping a housing market that has been particularly hard-hit by the crisis.
Brown also met the three main US presidential candidates. While careful not to back any candidate, the British PM applauded Hillary Clinton’s economic platform, lauding “the decisive action she has put forward to combat the recession and help those who have lost their mortgages.”
While Bush looks set to end his second term with a whimper, Brown is facing an uncertain future.
Having established his credentials as Tony Blair’s popular chancellor, the new prime minister is undermined by the current slowdown.
Hardly surprisingly, Britain’s ruling party is apprehensive about the May 2008 local elections, with opinion polls suggesting the opposition Conservative Party is cruising ahead.