President Bush's meeting with new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown at Camp David is taking place amid simmering tensions between London and Washington. Remarks made by International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander and new Foreign Office Minister Mark Malloch Brown, were widely interpreted as an attempt to create distance between the new Brown government and the Bush administration. Malloch Brown's outspoken comments in particular, given in an interview with the London Daily Telegraph, caused considerable unease in the United States, and would have led to a major diplomatic incident had they not been swiftly disavowed by the Brown administration.
In addition, Brown's recent meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel as well as French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in advance of his trip to Washington, have been interpreted in Europe as a sign that the new prime minister will adopt a closer relationship with Europe, at the expense of the transatlantic alliance. There is already talk in European capitals of a new axis developing between Berlin, Paris and London, with Brown shifting away from Washington.
The Camp David summit may well be the most awkward set of talks between Great Britain and the United States since the infamous February 2001 "toothpaste summit" when Tony Blair met with George W. Bush for the first time in the pre 9/11 era. Brown, a rather dour and uncharismatic figure, has little in common with his more outgoing U.S. counterpart, and is unlikely to repeat the extraordinarily close partnership struck by his predecessor with the American president.
There is growing public animosity in the U.K. toward the Anglo-American alliance, and widespread disillusionment with American global leadership, a point reinforced in a new poll published by the Sunday Times which showed that 60 percent of Britons believe that Brown "should seek to put some distance between him and George Bush." The new prime minister will inevitably seek to reduce the number of high-profile public displays of unity that were a regular occurrence when Blair was leader and replace them with more frank, behind-the-scenes negotiations.
Style and personality aside however, it is likely the special relationship will continue in the immediate term under Gordon Brown, a point he made clear in his first Downing Street press conference, where he described it as "our strongest bilateral relationship." Brown emphatically declared that "the relationship between a British prime minister and an American president will be as strong, should be strong, and will be strengthened in the months and years to come." His Foreign Secretary David Miliband also acted quickly to quash any suggestion that the remarks by Malloch Brown reflected the view of the prime minister.
Although Brown may adjust some of its priorities as well as the dynamics that drive it, he is unlikely to change the essence of the Anglo-American alliance in his first period of office. There is no sign yet of an early withdrawal of British troops from Iraq, and in Afghanistan London remains firmly committed to increasing Britain's military commitment. On Iran, Brown has significantly not ruled out the use of force to halt Tehran's nuclear program. There will certainly be continuing close Anglo-American cooperation in the war on terror as well as over a range of issues, from the genocide in Sudan to confronting Russia's increasingly aggressive attitude toward Europe.
As prime minister, Gordon Brown will probably disappoint those in Europe who wish to see Britain play a more central role in the European Union in close alliance with the continent's two other major powers. Britain's foreign-policy focus will likely remain firmly anchored in the transatlantic alliance, and the relationship with Washington will remain paramount for the foreseeable future.
A Berlin-London-Paris axis might sound like an attractive proposition in the Chancellery or Elysee Palace, but it is wishful thinking. If Brown were to adopt this position, it would be little short of a revolution in British foreign policy, and the most significant shift in strategic thinking since the Second World War.
Washington's commitment to maintaining the Special Relationship is just as great if not greater than that of London. The White House is under no illusion that in terms of significant military and intelligence support in Europe, the United States has only one major ally that is a global power in its own right, and that is Great Britain. Today, more than 12,000 British troops fight alongside their American counterparts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and London and Washington are cooperating on dozens of counterterrorism operations across the globe.
The enduring strength of the alliance is the envy of the free world, and the French president or German chancellor can only dream of the kind of direct access to the U.S. president that is the preserve of the British prime minister.
The French and German governments have fortunately dropped their outright hostility toward the United States, and it is easier for both Downing Street and the White House to work with their new leaders than it was with Chirac and Schröder. However, while France and Germany will cooperate with Washington on some issues, they are unlikely to fight alongside America in a major war (Afghanistan is a perfect example). Paris and Berlin will act in some cases as a strategic partner of Washington, but more often as a strategic competitor. The brutal truth remains that Paris and Berlin cannot not be relied upon by the United States to act as close allies when the chips are down and America needs a friend to stand alongside her.
There is also little prospect that Britain under Brown will move to the heart of Europe. Like Tony Blair before him, Brown will find that he will frequently have to choose between siding with the United States or the big powers of the European Union on crucial matters of war and peace. The German chancellor and the French president are primarily European rather than global in outlook, and view most issues through the prism of the EU and their own national interests within that framework. Britain's focus is far less Euro-centric, with a greater emphasis upon acting as a global and not just a European player.
Paris and Berlin traditionally work in concert within the EU on most major issues, a fact that is unlikely to change significantly under Merkel and Sarkozy. Both leaders are committed to further political integration in the European Union, and believe in centralizing more political power in Brussels in the area of foreign, economic and defence policy. Brown shares little enthusiasm for the European single currency or expanding the role of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). He may even roll back Britain's commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights as part of a toughening of British anti-terror laws. Brown will also face intense public pressure to agree to a U.K. referendum on the new European Union Treaty, a revived version of the European Constitution, which will place him directly at loggerheads with Paris and Berlin.
Nevertheless, as prime minister, Gordon Brown will be forced at times to walk a delicate path between support for the United States, and appeasing the anti-American and pro-European instincts of many in his own ruling Labor party. He will face intense pressure from left-wing members of Parliament to extricate Britain from Iraq, and a further deterioration in the security situation or any significant loss of British troops could make a pro-war position increasingly difficult. In addition, growing calls for an inquiry into the Iraq War will add to the pressure to shift course on Iraq, as will the prospect of a possible general election as early as Fall 2007 or Spring 2008, before an overwhelmingly anti-war electorate.
Brown will need to demonstrate strong leadership in defense of the Anglo-American alliance if it is to survive for future generations to inherit. The relationship cannot be taken for granted, and protecting it must be a top-level priority for both the British and U.S. governments. Brown will need to act swiftly to repair the harm caused by his minister for Africa, Asia, and the United Nations, whose recent remarks were among the most undiplomatic made in the modern history of the Foreign Office. Mark Malloch Brown's appointment was a slap in the face of the United States, and if he continues to operate as a loose cannon, the potential for serious damage to the working relationship between the U.S. and U.K. cannot be underestimated.
It is imperative that London and Washington work together in addressing the major international challenges of the day, from the rising al Qaeda threat to the looming specter of a nuclear-armed Iran. The world needs strong Anglo-American leadership, and would be a far more dangerous place without the special relationship.
Nile Gardiner is the director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the National Review Online