Sir Christopher Meyer, British ambassador to the United States from 1997 to 2003, takes to the pages of the Telegraph to answer the question “Which President would be best for Britain?”
The answer is neither surprising nor particularly interesting. The analysis, however, is superb, highlighting some truisms about both politics and the Special Relationship between the two countries.
The centre of gravity in US politics is some way to the right of its equivalent in Britain. In some parts of America, to be called Left-wing liberal is only slightly less damning than “socialist”. By US standards, David Cameron and Tony Blair are Left-wing liberals. […] Take health care. Support for the NHS is a given across the British political spectrum. Obama has promised big changes. But his manifesto rejects government-run health care – what many Americans call “socialised medicine” – and advocates reform of the current system based on private health insurance. Then there is Sarah Palin, McCain’s running mate, who has struck the fear of God into Europeans (and many Americans) as a bible-bashing nutter. But in many parts of America you can be pro-God, pro-creationism, pro-life, pro-guns, pro-moose skinning, and remain within the political mainstream.
The columnist George Will observed many years ago that American politics is like a football game (an American football game, naturally) played between the 40 yard lines. The fact of the matter is that Barack Obama and John McCain would both be right wing Tories in the UK and Obama would fit comfortably in Germany’s CDU. This point is often missed by Americans and Europeans alike. (As an aside, it’s worth noting that “liberal” still retains its original meaning across the Pond, with the British Liberals roughly equivalent to the American Libertarians while liberals in the U.S. are economic interventionists although, again, not by UK standards.)
Interests and Personalities
Since 1945, the relationship has gone through sharp troughs and peaks. These have had almost nothing to do with whichever party was in power. It has always been about interests and issues – and, at the margin, personal chemistry between leaders. We kicked off the post-war period with an almighty row between Attlee’s Labour government and Truman’s Democratic administration over an American loan. Wilson, a Labour prime minister, got on appallingly with Johnson, a Democratic president, who disliked him for not sending troops to Vietnam and for smoking a pipe in the Oval Office. Thatcher had a strikingly close relationship with one Republican president, Reagan, and a rather awkward one with another Republican, Bush the elder. Blair had famously close relations with a Democratic and a Republican.
Conversely, I might add, American Republicans held Blair in disdain during the Clinton administration and became his staunchest supporters under Bush the Younger, owing to his steadfast — and domestically ruinous — support for the Iraq War.
Sharing a common heritage, America and Britain are on the same side of issues more often than America and any other country in Western Europe. Still, our interests — or at least our understanding of them — often vary. The fact that a Labour leader is currently in power won’t make a President Obama any more friendly to the UK nor, if he pulls a major upset at the polls, would a President McCain have any difficulty working with Prime Minister Gordon Brown or a successor based on domestic ideologies.
Again, this is true beyond the U.S.-Britain relationship. America’s relationship with Old Europe, particularly Germany and France, declined in the early years of the Bush administration, not because he was a conservative and those countries had leaders of the Left, but because Bush was Hell bent on leading the Alliance into a war that neither Gerhard Schröder nor Jacques Chirac had any intention of fighting. Conversely, American expectation of dramatically improved relations owing to the emergence of right-of-center Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy were misplaced; to the extent things got better it was owing to a convergence of views on Iraq and regression to the mean.
Our current poll asks, “What impact will the new U.S. president have on relations with Europe?” Thus far, 2/3 of both American and European respondents expect a significant improvement while the other third expect little to no change. The next American president will get a fresh start. Tempermentally, Obama is more likely than McCain to soothe relations. My guess, though, is that Harold Macmillan’s counsel on a different question will be much more predictive: “Events, dear boy, events.”
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.