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

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.