This illusion of British influence over the US

British governments work assiduously at a relationship that hardly ever works when we need it

Why did Tony Blair say last week, referring to this week's three-day visit by the US, "I believe this is exactly the right time for him to come."? There cannot be anybody else in the entire country who agrees with this assessment.

The remark is best seen as another pointer to the state of the Prime Minister's mind. For nowadays he thinks that he is always right, that his strong convictions are bound to be vindicated. To this delusion, Mr Blair adds another. If only he can talk to this or that person, then he or she will be won over to his point of view.

I was reminded by Peter Riddell's new book, Hug Them Close, that in the aftermath of 11 September 2001, Mr Blair became in effect Mr Bush's ambassador at large. During eight weeks of obsessive activity following the attack, the Prime Minister had 54 meetings with other leaders, almost one a day. By the end of his odyssey he had been on 31 flights and had covered more than 40,000 miles. His belief in his own powers of persuasion, however, has led the Prime Minister into a series of errors.

One of the more serious concerns his notion that Britain can be a mediator between the US and Europe. As he told American journalists in 1998, "I see Britain as in some ways a bridge... it is important to say to America you know we value your friendship... and we want you thoroughly engaged with Europe and to say to the people of Europe, you know, thank goodness there is America there, because America plays a vital role... in the world which is to the benefit of the world".

This idea of Britain being a bridge is pure delusion. In the first place it is patronising, for it involves saying to the US and to our European neighbours - look, we Brits understand something about the others you don't. But why should the great powers need Tony Blair to explain things to them? And second, the Brits don't perform their self-appointed role in an even-handed manner. For we are prepared to have public rows in Europe, particularly with the French, but never with the US. When the British government meets misunderstanding in Paris, it says so out loud, but when London finds Washington's views unpalatable, as it frequently does, it bites its lip. And while the flaming row between "old" Europe and the US over war in Iraq should have extinguished all talk of a bridge, Mr Blair continues to refer to Britain's interpreting role. He cannot do without the comfort the notion brings him, illusory though it is.

Mr Blair's most serious delusion is that he can influence American foreign policy. When the US confronts issues of international terrorism, the Prime Minister argues, "We should be with them; and we should in return expect these issues to be confronted with the international community, proportionately, sensibly and in a way that delivers a better prospect of long-term peace, security and justice." America should listen back on issues such as the Middle East peace process, global warming and the UN. But America doesn't listen back. The Middle East road map has been torn up; Ariel Sharon has more influence in Washington than the British Prime Minister. Mr Bush rejected the Kyoto agreement on climate change because it would "cause serious harm to the US economy". The UN remains exactly where the US government wishes it to be: on the sidelines.

As for purely British interests, the Americans rarely go out of their way to help. President Reagan's support for Mrs Thatcher's decision to recapture the Falkland Islands in spring 1982 was late and inadequate. President Clinton granted a visa to Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein to visit the US, in March 1994, despite repeated British requests that he should not do so.

I don't criticise the Americans for putting their own interests first - not upsetting client states in South America in the case of the Falklands, keeping the Irish American vote on side, paying attention to business lobbies when they object to Kyoto. Rather I criticise British governments for working so assiduously at a relationship which hardly ever works when we need it.

Henry Kissinger remembers the situation 40 years ago. He recently wrote: "De Gaulle frequently behaved obstreperously in order to make ignoring him painful: Macmillan made it so easy for the United States to solicit Britain's views that ignoring him would have been embarrassing." The French attitude was robust, the British subservient. The French believed in themselves, the British didn't. So it has been over Iraq. In order to support the US, Britain has made its armed forces available, sacrificed soldiers' lives, used up billions of pounds, ruined its relationships within Europe and turned London into the city most likely to experience a major terrorist attack. We are the sole ally of any substance. Yet our influence on US policy is minimal. We even lay on a state visit so that Mr Bush can obtain some nice TV pictures to support his campaign for re-election. From delusion comes humiliation. From many delusions come many humiliations. That is what the Prime Minister has brought us to.

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