Adrian Hamilton: Obama is showing us how to live without our comfort blanket

British policy has been based on showing itself useful to Washington across the whole gamut of policy

Share
Related Topics

It's a comment on the quality of public debate, at least so far as foreign affairs are concerned, that politicians from every party want to claim President Obama as one of their own but no one seem to understand what he is actually doing or what the effect will be on Britain.

I don't mean by this the tired old debate about the "special relationship". In so far as there has been a special relationship in the terms that British Foreign Secretaries liked to see it – and there really never was other than the intermittent personal rapport between some of the leaders – Obama hasn't ended it. On a host of issues from security to finance, the two countries have always been close and remain so.

The release of al Megrahi hasn't helped, of course. It's a bit hard, however, to buy the argument that it has been the straw that has broken the back of the special relationship camel. The US public is aghast at the sight of the bomber going home to an ecstatic welcome in Libya and, being a democracy, any US leader is going to have to reflect that. The incident has probably not improved the US Administration's views of our skill in handling someone quite as flaky as Colonel Gaddafi. But Washington remains as satisfied as Britain that the Libyan leader has been brought in from the cold and as eager as we that the whole Lockberbie affair dissolves into history.

It may also be that the personal chemistry between Obama and Gordon Brown is not that warm. For a young President with the world at his feet, the hunkered-down, morose figure of the British Prime Minister must appear pretty hard going. But when it comes to it, on most of the issues discussed at the G20, the two leaders were very much in accord and showed it.

No, what people this side of the Atlantic still under-estimate, and what the United Nations meeting displayed, is the extent to which Obama has moved to a multilateral approach to foreign affairs in which relationships are based on the issue concerned not the bilateral relationship between America and others.

So on disarmament, President Obama seeks co-operation with Russia, China and Japan, because these are the countries that can influence not just the reduction in arms but the corralling of North Korea and Iran. On the Middle East, he wants relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran. On climate change it is China and India that he is zeroing in on. On the G20 it's Britain and the EU.

For a Britain used to working outwards from our alliances to our concerns, with especial reliance on our transatlantic partnership, this is a big shift. It means that, on a host of particular questions where we are used to playing a part because we are America's buddy, our views will be considered less important either because they can be assumed (as on nuclear disarmament) or because they are not very important (as on North Korea). We are of use in the UN Security Council but not in the working of ad hoc partnerships which Obama now wishes to pursue.

It's an American approach that poses problems at home for Obama. By putting issues in separate boxes – climate change, Middle East peace, nuclear disarmament, terror and trade – he has set up expectations of progress on each when he is bound to fail on some.

The implications for Britain, however, go much deeper. Ever since the war, British policy has been based on showing itself useful to Washington across the whole gamut of policy. That is still the approach being pursued by Gordon Brown as he desperately seeks to gain Obama's imprimateur by declaring how close they are on so many issues.

It doesn't impress the White House and it shouldn't impress us. America is going its particular way. It is really up to us to decide our own priorities and policies outside the comfort blanket of the special relationship..

If the US pushes on disarmament, should this make us more conscious of the European dimension for our forces? Is it in our interests to follow so slavishly on America's true special relation ship with Israel, or should we be seeking a distinct European policy? What indeed is our view of the future of Europe and our part in it? Or, to put it more broadly, where do we see Britain's role in the world now that economics are forcing us to cut our coat according to our cloth?

For the last 60 years we have been able to avoid these questions because of our friendship with America. If Obama is now forcing us to think for ourselves, it can only be for the good.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband hasn’t ‘suddenly’ become a robust leader. He always was

Steve Richards
 

Costa Rica’s wildlife makes me mourn our paradise lost

Michael McCarthy
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence