One thing's certain when President Obama arrives in London at the end of March - he'll receive a far warmer and more cordial welcome than the one he doled out to Gordon Brown in Washington earlier this week. As the British media widely noted, the Prime Minister was given a humiliatingly low key reception at the White House at the hands of a new U.S. Administration that seems to care little for the Anglo-American alliance or even the basics of international diplomacy.
No British leader in modern times has been greeted with less decorum by his American counterpart, and the amateur reception he received was more fitting for the arrival of a Third World potentate than the leader of America's closest ally.
Brown is hugely unpopular in Britain -- with good reason -- but he is still the leader of the only nation in the world that the United States can rely on in war or time of crisis, which has consistently shed blood and expended treasure in numerous conflicts alongside America. A British Prime Minister deserves to be treated with respect, even he is a lame duck at home or is barely recognizable to much of the American public.
President Bush was frequently labeled a cowboy and an isolationist by his critics, but the Bush White House knew how to receive its guests (including traveling press corps) with tremendous dignity, respect for tradition and sincere warmth towards visitors who had traveled thousands of miles to be there.
The new U.S. administration has much to learn from how Britain will roll out the red carpet with style and panache for the new president. When Obama meets with the Queen at Buckingham Palace on April 1, as well as attend an official dinner at Downing Street as a precursor to the G-20 talks and later the NATO 60th anniversary summit, the reception he will get in London will be both genuine and impeccably managed. It will involve intricate planning, with every attention paid to detail.
The president may not yet appreciate the huge importance of the Special Relationship, but when he crosses the Atlantic for the first time as president he will begin to understand the great significance it carries in the hearts and minds of the British people. It is imperative that Obama acknowledges and pays tribute to the tremendous sacrifice of Britain's armed forces alongside American troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as two world wars, something he has never done in a major policy speech.
He must also project for the first time on the world stage a clear vision for U.S. global leadership, anchored firmly in the transatlantic alliance with Britain. At present, the U.S. administration lacks clear direction in its foreign policy. The United States seems rudderless and unwilling to lead, against the backdrop of an increasingly dangerous world.
When Joe Biden outlined the U.S. administration's foreign policy at the Munich Security Conference last month, he delivered a muddled, quintessentially European-style speech that projected naiveté and confusion. It was a weak-kneed address that could easily have been drafted in Paris or Brussels, a celebration of "soft power" at a time of growing threats to international security. His words revealed a soft underbelly to the American superpower, one that will be probed and exploited by Washington's worst enemies.
When he visits Europe, Obama will have to show more fibre than his vice president, and significantly develop his stature as a statesman if he is to successfully project American power across the globe. He must demonstrate strong American leadership on an array of key issues, from the war in Afghanistan and the Iranian nuclear crisis, to the preservation of the NATO alliance.
The president has to address with conviction the global financial crisis, the menace of a resurgent Russia, and the continuing threat posed by Islamist terrorists. Alongside the prime minister he must call on European allies to help bear the military burden of the fight against the Taliban, by sending more combat troops to the battlefields of Helmand province. He should also declare that the West will not accept the ugly spectre of a nuclear armed Tehran, and will do all in its power, including the possible use of force, to prevent it from becoming a reality.
Whether Obama is actually up to the task remains to be seen. His meeting with Brown this week was nothing short of a PR disaster, the embarrassing fledgling steps of a new president unschooled in foreign affairs. He was out of his depth and it showed. In his trip to London and Strasbourg in three weeks time, Obama has a major opportunity to show that he has the maturity, strength and conviction to lead the free world. The whole of Europe will be watching, and the young president could learn a thing of two about leadership from Sir Winston Churchill, the British hero whose bust he so crassly removed from the Oval Office.
Nile Gardiner is Director of the Margaret Thatcher Centre for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.
First Appeared in the Daily Telegraph (UK)