It is a rite of passage that aspirant British prime ministers seek an audience with the incumbent of the White House. The aim is twofold: to show British voters they are “important” enough to be received by the leader of the free world. And secondly, to reaffirm the so-called “special relationship” that is supposed to exist between the UK and the United States.
Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, says these meetings are “the nearest that a leader of an opposition gets to a job interview”. On Monday, the latest supplicant for a White House political benediction – Ed Miliband – had his 25-minute interview with Barack Obama. Miliband has met Obama before, when the latter was on a state visit to the UK in 2011. But it is only a photograph with the president in the White House that really counts.
US presidents are notoriously reticent about acting as publicity props for foreign opposition politicians – especially if they already have an ideological soul mate ensconced in Number 10. Neil Kinnock got to meet Ronald Reagan for a few minutes in 1986. Reagan used the opportunity to publicly humiliate Kinnock by praising Margaret Thatcher and denouncing Labour’s policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament.
However, Ed Miliband has a secret weapon when it comes to getting access to the Oval Office – Labour’s new election campaign strategist, David Axelrod. Mr Axelrod just happens to be the genius behind Obama’s two successful presidential campaigns. So close is Axelrod to Obama that he is referred to in the US media as a lobe in the president’s brain. Clearly, “The Axe” has started to earn the reputed six-figure sum the Labour Party is paying him and his firm, AKPD Media and Message.
Hiring Axelrod was the idea of Douglas Alexander MP, the able chairman of Labour’s election strategy committee. Alexander has described Axelrod’s appointment as “seriously bad news for the Conservatives”. The Alexander-Axelrod link represents a new development in Anglo-American political relations. Take it seriously.
Douglas Alexander is an Americanophile in a leftwing party that – since Tony Blair prayed with George W Bush – is wary of being linked to the White House. Alexander spent part of his undergraduate years at the University of Pennsylvania and also helped on Michael Dukakis’ campaign during the 1988 presidential election. Alexander is now shadow foreign secretary and could be the real thing if Labour wins the 2015 Westminster general election.
Will this herald a new chapter in the UK-US special relationship? Perhaps. Historically, any such relationship has depended more on personal chemistry than anything else. Yet even when British politicians have had their phone calls returned by the White House switchboard, it does not imply a relationship of equals.
The Anglo-American alliance during the Second World War was grounded on the close personal relationship between President Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, who was half-American anyway. Mind you, that did not stop America forcing the UK to hand over its foreign currency reserves in return, effectively bankrupting the country. Any close reading of that wartime partnership must conclude that Churchill was romantically naïve and Roosevelt the cynical New York politician.
A similar mismatch of intention and understanding took place between Harold Macmillan and John F Kennedy in the early 1960s. The aristocratic and experienced Macmillan thought he was playing father figure to the young Kennedy, which Kennedy exploited to the full. Kennedy and his Boston Irish political cronies were contemptuous of Macmillan’s notion that Britain was an equal partner and soon made it clear that Britain’s so-called independent nuclear deterrent would operate under US control.
True, Thatcher and Reagan were a famous double act and any other US president might have balked at supporting Britain’s war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. But you can put that down to a quid pro quo for Thatcher’s loyal support of Reagan’s military build-up against the ailing Soviet empire of Leonid Brezhnev. With the arrival of Gorbachev, Reagan surprised everyone – including Thatcher – with a plan to scrap all nuclear weapons.
From Churchill to the present, there is nothing to suggest that America has ever compromised its own economic or political interests, in dealing with Britain. The Tories will learn this with a vengeance if they try and take the UK out of the EU. Whoever is in the White House will see such a move as a threat to European stability and the Nato alliance.
What might American foreign policy look like after Obama is gone in 2016, and where might the UK fit in? Elected after the trauma of the Iraq War, Obama favoured less foreign intervention. He left dealing with the collapse of the Gaddafi regime in Libya to the Europeans (with negative results) and backed off from bombing Syria. Obama’s major foreign policy shift was to re-focus US military power towards the Pacific, to “contain” China, though this involved more rhetoric than practical activity. For good or ill, the Obama presidency has been about domestic issues, not foreign policy.
However, the unravelling in Iraq and a more bellicose Kremlin are prompting a major rethink about America’s relationship with the world. If Democrat frontrunner Hillary Clinton wins the presidency in 2016, expect a return to liberal interventionism in the Blair mould. Some neo-conservatives in America – who previously attacked Obama for his failure to exert global leadership – are warming to Hillary. In this context, the new closeness between Labour and the Democrats could prove problematic for British interests – something to note if Scotland remains in the Union.
Labour’s foreign policy stance – be it on an in-out referendum on EU membership or on what to do about the Middle East – is vague to say the least. Here the influence of David Axelrod is doubly dangerous.
Axelrod is famous for believing that “the candidate is the message” and avoiding policy commitments. Certainly this got Obama both elected and an instant Nobel Peace Prize.
Unfortunately, once in the Oval Office, Obama hadn’t a plan to broker an Israeli-Palestine peace deal. We are living with the result.