It is only three months since I last visited the United States, but across the political landscape the earth has moved.
Back in high summer a visit to Democratic caucuses was rather like bringing furtive messages of good cheer from the outside world to brave bands of resistance to the Republican machine. This fall it is the Republicans who are beleaguered and progressive voices talk with real hope that they could yet be the next administration.
It is Iraq that has triggered the political landslip. Americans may not be quite as troubled as the British about the vanishing weapons of mass destruction, but they are even more troubled by the costs of the occupation. Tony Blair can always fall back on his real achievements on the domestic agenda, but for Bush the disintegration of his foreign policy has left cruelly exposed his record of economic stagnation and regressive tax policies.
Part of Bush's political problem is that the gigantic cheque he is trying to persuade Congress to sign for Iraq provides an uncomfortable contrast with his meanness towards public services for their own electors. One mischievous amendment in the Senate throws this contrast into bold relief by requiring that for every school or hospital the President funds in Iraq, he must make a parallel provision in the public sector of the United States.
There is still a long road before next year's presidential election, and the long ballot paper of candidates for the Democratic nomination betrays the lack of a single powerful figure who can dominate the scene. In wistful moments, party veterans will muse on a fantasy ticket that combines the liberal credentials of Howard Dean with the military credibility of Wesley Clark, but no one has yet figured out how to persuade either to settle for the number two slot.
Meanwhile President Bush, who has the security of knowing he will be the candidate, is conducting a series of fund-raising dinners to raise the largest campaign chest in electoral history.
It could yet go horribly wrong, but right now the scent of blood makes Democratic gatherings more optimistic about the prospects for election success and more bold about the international agenda.
This is good news for the rest of us. We are trapped between the two great realities of international relations, which are in flat contradiction to each other. The central feature of the modern world is the interdependence of states for both prosperity and security. Every state needs a healthy international community to provide orderly, structured relations within which it can make progress on a common agenda.
Yet at the very moment when there is most need for multilateralism, the largest, most prosperous and most powerful state has the most unilateralist administration in US history. Its determined unilateralism is driven by an ideological belief that the US should always be capable of going it alone. Their ambivalence towards Nato, and frank hostility to the UN, reflects a dogmatic belief that the US must always be capable of acting unilaterally, without any dependency on allies, or need for international authority. Ultimately the aggressive unilateralism of the Bush administration is incompatible with the interdependence of the real world, as they have discovered in Iraq, where they are now desperate to internationalise their problem.
Europe, just as much as the US, needs an administration that understands America must rejoin the international community. Progressive voices on both sides of the Atlantic need to conduct a dialogue now to establish the common ground for partnership if there is a change of president. The agenda is extensive and cannot wait until after his inauguration.
There is the pressing issue of renovating the architecture of international institutions, especially the UN. The permanent membership of the Security Council still reflects the world as it was in the middle of the last century, and needs to be overhauled to reflect the world as it is in the 21st century. A Security Council which included as permanent members, say, Brazil, South Africa and Japan, might have been more difficult for Bush (and Blair) to marginalise over Iraq. A depressing feature of the past couple of years is the ease with which the neo-conservatives were able to brush aside the habits of partnership and consensus that had been developed in the Clinton era. Next time round we must embed the practice of international agreement more firmly in multilateral structures which will be more difficult to ignore.
Then there is the need to challenge the hegemony of neo-liberal economics, which during its twenty years of ascendancy has produced slower, and less stable, growth than in the preceding thirty years and widened the tension between north and south. Nothing would better get us off to a fast start in restoring cohesion to the global community than an understanding between the incoming US administration and like minds in Europe that we cannot continue our indefensible practice of spending more on protecting the agriculture of our own countries than our development budgets for the whole of the Third World.
An American would have put security and terrorism first on the agenda. After the trauma of 9/11 there is no prospect of agreement to a common agenda which does not recognise that security is currently the highest political priority for Americans. Proving able to establish common ground on this issue with Europeans could be an asset for US progressives. The history of diplomacy has few more spectacular own goals than the way in which the global coalition against world terrorism which sprang up after 9/11 was split asunder by Bush on the rock of his Iraq policy. Europe could be invaluable in putting back together that world coalition if we had a partner in the White House who understood that terrorism will not be defeated by tanks alone, whether on the streets of Baghdad or in the alleys of Jenin.
Tony Blair has the standing to deliver on such an agenda and he remains by far the most popular European leader in the States. Old friends from the Democratic Party ask in pained tones how a Prime Minister who was so friendly to Bill Clinton can be just as friendly to Bush, who is from the opposite political pole. But that will not stand in the way of a warm reception for him at the White House from a Democratic president, always provided we do not get too cuddly with the present incumbent in election year.
Next month President Bush comes here at our invitation on a state visit. A touch hasty perhaps, as Bill Clinton was never invited on an official state visit, but nicely positioned for Bush as he startsthe countdown to his re-election.
It is essential that the event is seen as celebrating the closeness between Britain and the US, not between Blair and Bush. It would therefore be helpful if our Prime Minister included in his speech a strong message on the need for a multilateralist international community. It might not go down like bourbon with the visiting entourage, but it could strike a chord with progressives back home who, with luck, may be the people with whom he will be doing business next year.Reuse content