America’s “special friend” Tony Blair visits Washington this week. The real question overshadowing his visit is whether heir apparent Gordon Brown will be an equally convivial trans-Atlantic partner.
Ever since the May 5 Labor election victory, the British media have been full of stories demanding to know when Mr. Blair will stand down as prime minister. This drumbeat is echoed by the chorus of stories enquiring when Chancellor Gordon Brown will ascend to Number 10 Downing Street.
American policymakers may find they have a slight “fear of the unknown” when dealing with Mr. Brown. In fact, careful analysis would indicate this heir apparent is the person most likely to enable revitalizion of the trans-Atlantic relationship.
Tony Blair has always appealed to American sensibilities with his ability to cushion in elegant rhetoric opinions that are more bluntly put by President Bush.
In Europe, he has played up this appeal by declaring it illustrates he has America’s ear and is able to manipulate U.S. policy from within. Yet it is hard to gauge the degree to which Mr. Blair has had any moderating effect at all.
In his inaugural speech last month, Prime Minister Blair outlined his new government’s foreign policy as focusing on “poverty in Africa, on climate change, and on making progress on Israel and Palestine.” These are all lofty goals that will require major expenditures of political capital and international cooperation to ensure any measure of success.
Mr. Blair lacks political capital and leverage in his relationships, but the reasons are tied to him and will exit with him.
The biggest issue is of course Iraq. Mr. Blair is the premier U.S. ally in the war in Iraq, with the most troops and political capital invested in the cause besides the U.S. itself. This has made him unpopular among the more leftist elements of his own party; amongst the chattering classes across Britain; and it made him persona non grata in the major European capitals, most of which disagreed, and continue to do so, with the war.
Chancellor Gordon Brown has none of this baggage. He has remained aloof from the Iraq issue. And while he may have said publicly he would have reacted in the same way, it remains true it was not his decision to join in the war.
In domestic terms, most of the British public attributes the current U.K. economic success to Mr. Brown’s tenure as chancellor. Europeans are also envious of his gatekeeping of the British economy, with its 4.8 percent unemployment rate (half that of Germany or France). They find his talk of saving Africa and lowering Third World debt resonates clearer with them from his lips than from Tony Blair’s.
He is also a personal friend of prominent Democrats in the United States, holidaying with them on the East Coast. While this may make Republicans suspicious of him, it makes him far more appealing to Europeans deeply suspicious of the perceived conservative bent of the Bush administration.
This could be read as signs that a hostile government to President Bush awaits in the wings in the United Kingdom.
Yet that interpretation would mean a missed opportunity. Chancellor Brown has proved himself a clear-headed politician, and therefore one who would recognize distancing London from Washington would not prove a good thing.
Binding himself too closely with Europe would render him unpopular domestically to the Eurosceptic British population, and far worse, could damage his successful economic model. On the other side of the coin, “little Britain” is too “little” to survive alone and without the United States or Europe in the current global environment.
Gordon Brown’s ascension to Downing Street offers both Europeans and Americans an opportunity to leave in the past the trans-Atlantic baggage associated with Iraq. Mr. Bush has no desire for his foreign policy legacy to be defined by Iraq, and Europeans realize it is hard to achieve their foreign policy goals alone. Gordon Brown has none of the baggage of Iraq and the political credit as a newcomer on both sides of the Atlantic. He inherits a foreign policy agenda from the new Labor administration on which both sides of the Atlantic can agree, and further he has a track record fighting for it.
Once he is in power, European governments are likely to line up behind Mr. Brown. Their American counterparts would do well to follow their lead and craft future trans-Atlantic relations around the issues he presents with the easy political capital they offer.
Raffaello Pantucci is a research assistant with the Europe program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.