Next week, President George Bush makes history. He will become the first US President to enjoy an official state visit in the lifetime of our Queen. Previous US presidents have been received with feasting and toasting but none since Woodrow Wilson have been honoured with the pomp and circumstance of a full state visit. Even Ronald Reagan never obtained such a signal favour from his soulmate Margaret Thatcher.
Few recent presidents have done more to advance UK-US relations than Bill Clinton but he was never offered a state visit to cement his partnership with Tony Blair. I was Foreign Secretary at the time the Royal Visits Committee quietly dropped Mr Clinton from the forward programme of state visits because of his impending impeachment. I am bewildered that the same committee which concluded Mr Clinton did not merit a state visit has decided that President Bush has the stronger claim to be so honoured.
Perhaps conscious that most of Britain is just as bewildered, Tony Blair claimed this week that protests against Mr Bush's visit were evidence of "resurgent anti-Americanism." This is at least consistent with the rhetorical strategy of his honoured guest, whose spin merchants label his domestic critics as anti-patriotic. In all other respects it is a dishonest, shallow cheap argument, not worthy of such a consummate communicator as our Prime Minister. It is entirely possible to want warm relations with the American people while keeping a prudent distance from the foreign adventures of President Bush.
Indeed, it is logically absurd to allege that those who oppose Mr Bush are opposed to the American people. The historical fact is that most Americans did not vote for Mr Bush. The majority of those who voted wanted Al Gore to be their president. There will be Americans taking part in the protests next week who want to register their outrage at the damage George Bush has inflicted on the international standing of their country.
Many of the British citizens who do not want Mr Bush to be honoured by their country are the same people who have provided enthusiastic audiences for the recent tour by the US satirist Michael Moore and have propelled into the best-seller list his coruscating diatribe on the follies of his President. Are the Brits who share his anxieties and those of millions of Americans now to be blacklisted as anti-American?
Among the many embarrassing dimensions to President Bush's visit is the awkward fact that it occurs at the very moment when most Americans have concluded that his foreign policy is leading their country up a dead end. That may not have been predictable when the invitation was first offered over a year ago. Nor could it have been foreseen that, the week before his visit, the CIA should conclude that the Iraqi resistance was "broad, strong and getting stronger".
But the fact the visit coincides with the start of the countdown to the Presidential election has been known ever since the dates were chosen by agreement with the White House. Propriety may prevent us from seeking to boost the electoral prospects of the Democrat candidates, but it is pretty perverse of us to make their task even tougher by offering up Buckingham Palace as the mother of all photo-ops for President Bush. Britain's national interests lie in a change of incumbency at the White House which replaces the dogged unilateralism of present US strategy with a return to multilateralism.
Tony Blair has done enough already to demonstrate his support for Mr Bush, without offering a state visit as well. He committed a third of the British Army to Bush's war on Iraq, is distorting our overseas aid priorities to fund the reconstruction of Iraq, and has destroyed a large part of his domestic and international credibility by promoting a bogus claim that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction were a clear and present danger. After all that, was it really necessary to throw in a white tie and tails dinner to convince George Bush that he is his friend?
Anyway, it is the US side of the balance sheet that is in deficit. It is all too clear what Britain has done to advance US foreign policy. It is hard to spot what President Bush has done in return to assist British interests. There is a long charge-sheet from global warming to the International Criminal Court where the Bush Administration has enthusiastically set about sabotaging the priorities of British foreign policy. Tony Blair did extract a promise from President Bush that, after Iraq, he would be energetic in pursuing peace in the Middle East, but as the tension between Israelis and Palestinians has escalated, President Bush has firmly kept the Atlantic Ocean between himself and the problem.
Perhaps the unkindest cut of all was the recent denunciation by Washington of the European Defence Project, which had been inspired by Tony Blair and painstakingly crafted by him to avoid giving any grounds for legitimate offence in the US. As one of my former colleagues among European foreign ministers put it to me recently, "We are all amused that Britain gets so little in return."
It is standard procedure in diplomacy to consider in advance of a foreign visit what gesture of goodwill would make the event a success on both sides. There are plenty of candidates jostling for President Bush's attention if he is interested in making such a gesture. He has just lost out at the WTO, who have ruled against his whopping tariffs on steel imports from Britain and elsewhere. At some point, his administration is going to have to back down, and the sooner he does so, the better his chances of averting a trade war.
How better could George Bush demonstrate partnership is a two-way street than by making a virtue out of necessity and announce on his visit that he is abandoning his protectionist tariffs on steel imports?
Nobody imagines for one minute that President Bush is capable of such a gesture, because everyone understands that the point of his visit is to send positive images of himself back home, not to bring a positive message to Britain. The state visit is the latest episode in a relationship with the Bush administration that has remained so one-sided that it has become an affront to our national dignity.
Tony Blair could revive our self-respect and go a long way to restoring his own credibility if he was to take the opportunity of Mr Bush's presence to express frankly some of the areas of foreign policy where his administration cause difficulty even for friends as loyal as Britain. A good starting point would be to invite Bush to join Britain in restoring the credibility of the UN as a necessary step to internationalising the political process in Iraq, which both our countries desperately need.
I fear the very idea of such an assertion of national independence would cause apoplexy in Number 10, but if their relationship with the Bush White House is to survive, it must evolve into a two-way street which recognises Britain has its own public opinion and national interests. If the state visit takes on the character of the US boss visiting his wholly owned British subsidiary it will do further damage to relations with the Bush Administration in the eyes of the British public and further diminish the stature of their Prime Minister.Reuse content