A changing relationship

Kanishk Tharoor
31 July 2007

Gordon Brown's first visit as prime minister to the United States - where he shared a lunch of cheeseburgers and French fries with George W Bush - has been widely described as signalling a change in "style not substance" in the trans-Atlantic relationship. Yet, for a relationship that lived so much in rhetoric, in the chummy claps on the back, and the at once sombre and amiable double-act, a change in style is a substantial one indeed.

This article was posted first on OurKingdom, openDemocracy's debate on the future of Britain Writing in yesterday's Washington Post, Brown was at pains to reaffirm his belief in the shared cultural inheritance of the Anglo-American tradition. Much of his language of "values" is like Blair's, reminiscent of the former prime minister's January treatise for a pedigreed American audience in Foreign Affairs. But while Brown apes Blair's rhetoric on the "battle of ideas", his carefully-worded sermon against terrorism marks a more meaningful departure from the Blair norm.

The biggest challenge

More than poverty and climate change, global terrorism constitutes, according to Brown, "the biggest single and immediate challenge the world has to face". It is now a threat that Whitehall plans to deal with differently than the White House. Though Brown struck a lofty and conciliatory tone during his visit (while allowing his cabinet to speak harshly about American foreign policy in preceding weeks), he is tugging the UK position, in effect, back across the Atlantic, closer to Europe.

toD's recent coverage on British counterterrorism includes:

"Britain's terror trials," 11 July 2007

Geoffrey Bindman, "Does the UK need more anti-terror laws?"
7 June 2007
Gone - as has become de facto British policy now - was any reference to the "war on terror" (indeed, Brown is now meticulous in his noun usage, eschewing the vaguely existential "terror" for "terrorism"). Instead, terrorism in Brown-speak comprises a "crime against humanity". This is a useful expression; it maintains all the spacious implication of the "war on terror" while clearly placing terrorism in the context of law and order. Many European countries - particularly Spain - have been unequivocal in their rejection of the Bush administration's martial approach to counterterrorism. Terrorists must be treated as criminals, embedded as they are in shady and intricate networks that resemble those of organised crime. Terrorism is best prosecuted (and prevented) not with bombs and special forces, but judges, close detective work and a commitment to the rule of law and the international system that forms its roof.

This "defensive" approach has long been derided in neo-conservative American circles and, indeed, within the corridors of the White House itself, which sees the domestic "Homeland Security" campaign as intrinsically tied to US excursions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A Cold War mentality?

To the discomfort of the current White House, much of Britain's foreign policy establishment is no longer convinced that military efforts abroad go hand-in-hand with counterterrorism at home. While Brown plans to toughen domestic anti-terror legislation, he and foreign secretary David Miliband are reevaluating the nature of British military involvement in west Asia, particularly in southern Iraq. Similarly, the UK looks set to strike a different line on tackling Iran's nuclear development and resolving the Palestine-Israel conflict.

Brown repeats Blair's rhetorical fluff on Anglo-American "values", but such talk veils a change in substance, not style. British foreign policy, informed by the errors and catastrophes of the last four years, is changing in ways that will hopefully make "the trans-Atlantic relationship" one that requires negotiation, give-and-take and compromise.

At the same time, however, Brown, in the name of Britain's national interest, is backing Trident and the two carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, both with their hugely expensive (and US-dependent) support systems. The British PM is distancing himself from the folly of the neo-con enterprise, but not so far from the underlying Cold War construction of the "special relationship". It may well be, therefore, that he is deliberately helping to lay out the sheets for getting snug into bed with an old-fashioned Democratic incumbent in the White House. Then what will they do about Iran?

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