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The Anti-Churchill

Brown undoes the special relationship.

12:00 AM, Mar 26, 2008 • By NILE GARDINER
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WHEN BRITISH PRIME MINISTER Gordon Brown visits the United States next month he is unlikely to receive as enthusiastic a welcome as his predecessor, Tony Blair. A recent report in London's Sunday Telegraph cast a bleak spotlight on the current state of Anglo-American relations with the stark headline: "'Special Relationship' dies under Gordon Brown." The Telegraph article revealed that British diplomats were no longer using the term to describe the decades-long alliance between London and Washington that had, in its heyday, successfully defeated both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

The phrase has been quietly dropped by the British Foreign Office in deference to Britain's European Union partners. As the newly unveiled National Security Strategy of the United Kingdom made clear, while "the partnership with the United States is our most important bilateral relationship and central to our national security . . . the EU has a vital role in securing a safer world both within and beyond the borders of Europe." Referring to Washington in the same breath as New Delhi and Beijing, the report goes on to say that Britain "will continue to build close bilateral relationships with key countries, including the United States, and the emerging powers of India and China."

Equal billing for the United States and the European Union in the affections of Downing Street would have been unthinkable in the days of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, but the notion gained ground during the Blair years, despite the former prime minister's strong pro-American sentiments. Blair mistakenly believed that Britain could be both America's closest ally as well as a central player at the heart of an increasingly integrated Europe. He backed the European Union Security and Defense Policy (ESDP), the European single currency, and the defeated European Constitution, while simultaneously supporting the United States in the war on terror in the years following the 9/11 attacks.

However, the Iraq war sharply exposed the divisions within Europe over support for U.S. foreign policy, and Blair found himself sharply at odds with France, Germany, and the EU establishment in Brussels. Ultimately, Britain has had to bear the lion's share of the European military burden in Iraq as well as in the NATO operation in Afghanistan, shattering any illusion that the big powers of the European Union will stand shoulder to shoulder on the battlefield with either London or Washington.

Despite Blair being badly burned in his dealings with Paris, Berlin, and Brussels over Iraq, Brown seems determined to pursue the same pro-EU path of his predecessor, while adopting a distinctly lukewarm approach towards the United States. Blair's support for further integration in Europe was misguided and at times naïve, but few would doubt his genuine enthusiasm for, and commitment to, working with the United States on the biggest issues of the day.

In contrast, the strikingly uncharismatic Brown has adopted what can charitably be described as a laissez faire approach to the Anglo-American alliance, and this posture oozes indifference at almost every turn. His meeting with President Bush at the White House last July was businesslike but funereal in style, with little chemistry at all between the two world leaders. Indeed, the new prime minister had all the enthusiasm of an errant schoolboy forced to go on a school trip to the local transport museum.

Brown's half-hearted approach towards Washington can be explained by several factors, not least the new prime minister's aversion towards international affairs, and his almost obsessive focus on the minutiae of economic policy. It is not the Iranian nuclear crisis that keeps him awake at night, but the latest interest rate decision from the European Central Bank or its British counterpart. The dour Brown may have been a natural fit for Chancellor of the Exchequer (which he was for ten years), but he is far less suited to be prime minister--a reality reflected in the latest polls. Brown's approval rating now stands at minus 26 percent, and his party is at its lowest level since 1987, sixteen points behind the opposition conservatives.

As Chancellor, Brown had little enthusiasm for the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, barely lifting a finger to increase the military budget in real terms, and as prime minister he has followed the same approach. After more than a decade of Labour rule, Britain's military is severely overstretched and hugely underfunded. The UK still has over 4,000 troops in Iraq and more than 8,000 in Afghanistan, but their bravery is not matched by government's spending. Britain now spends just 2.2 percent of GDP on defense, its lowest level since the 1930s. The Ministry of Defense is expected to have to make $4 billion worth of cuts over the next two years.