Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: A tough lesson in international relations

'Oxford is an awful place for anyone who is not an insider. I was there, but unlike President Clinton, I hated the experience'
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The Independent Online

Poor Chelsea Clinton. Life in Oxford, the city of dreaming spires photographed ad nauseam by American tourists, is proving to be less delightful than her dad must have promised. She should never have allowed herself to believe Bill who, as the rest of us know, has problems with accurate recall. He claims to have had a spectacularly good time when he was there as a Rhodes scholar in the sixties and still goes all misty eyed when describing how his love for Britain grew out of this period of intimacy with the revered institution and its inmates.

Chelsea joined the university this year to pursue a post graduate course in international relations and is bloody miserable. In an outspoken, moving article in the US Talk magazine, she shares the feelings of isolation and bewilderment which have got significantly worse since 11 September.

She often eats alone and spends time with other Americans because she finds it difficult to deal with "anti-American" feelings which are rife at the university. She feels that she is tested and mistrusted by British students because of the "protectiveness, defensiveness and pride" she feels for her country. She says, too, that she finds it offensive that anyone should believe America "would enter this conflict capriciously" and confesses that these views "boggle" her mind. I find it mind boggling that a student of international relations should be so ill prepared for robust debate about the grave situation we find ourselves in but I do sympathise with her sense of exclusion.

Oxford is an awful place for anyone who is not a natural insider. I was there in the seventies too but unlike President Clinton, I hated the experience, especially the English department and my snooty tutors. American, Irish, Scottish, Australian students I knew then felt the same way and it was no accident that we befriended each other in order to survive. But unlike Chelsea, we never expected to be embraced by the ancient establishment.

With burning dissent over Vietnam in both countries, there was little soppy sentimentalism about special bonds between the two nations and American students were often loudest in their condemnation of their leaders. They led the demos and we followed, singing Joan Baez songs and holding candles which blew out in the wind.

Not so today. Large numbers of Americans who go to Oxford or Cambridge are more simplistically patriotic and over-romantic about their country. The British students at these places, on the other hand, are no longer only representative of old money or Toryism. The most protected areas have been infiltrated by radicals and a good thing too. Audiences attending Oxford Union debates today will always include bright women in Hejabs, radical students from comprehensive schools and globally aware undergraduates who see through the rhetoric of American and British power elites.

Outside cosy political circles, the relationship between US and UK citizens is more complicated and edgy than is often realised. Movies and television programmes rarely tackle the subject preferring instead to feed us inane stereotypes and the message that both countries are boundlessly and unconditionally loyal to each other.

I was in Oxfordshire this weekend, at a conference of the British American Project, an annual gathering of people from both sides of the Atlantic who are thought to have some influence on public life. The project was set up in the mid-eighties when the Reagan-Thatcher love-in was in full swing. Key people thought it would be a good idea to create an ever expanding network in order to deepen "the special relationship" between the two countries. To ensure that this would happen, top people were drawn in as were others who were against the notion of this "special" alliance.

There was room at this inn even for those like me (I have been a member since 1988) who were vociferously left of centre and proud of it. Several past and present cabinet ministers, special advisors, (Peter Mandelson, David Willetts, Lord Holme of Cheltenham and Jonathan Powell are fellows), editors, broadcasters, peers, lawyers, heads of non-government organisations, campaign group leaders, educationalists, doctors, writers, senior civil servants and others now make up the list of alumni.

History has transformed the political landscape but the network survives and has become more questioning and interesting as we travelled through the Clinton-Blair period and now the very extraordinary Blair-Bush era. Have we truly developed a closer understanding between our nations, we always ask ourselves, or do our meetings only reveal the chasms, the misunderstandings and mutual ignorance and suspicion which carry on regardless of how much talk, drink and bonhomie passes between us? This year, of course, these questions have taken on an exigency and emotion that none of us could have anticipated, We all felt the pressures of 11 September and its aftermath powerfully, just as powerfully as Chelsea in fact.

My view today is that in spite of the war and obvious warm feelings which people in both countries feel for each other, the gap between us as nations is greater than anyone is really prepared to admit. The informal conversations I had over the past 36 hours have convinced me even more of this. I must tread carefully now because I have no desire to relive the eruptions which followed aQuestion Time when I said that Americans needed a period of introspection and self analysis to understand why so many people in the world were hostile towards the superpower. In common with others committed to equality, I admire hugely the progress that the US has made to create an ethnically mixed hierarchy in all its institutions. I love the openness and generosity of the Americans I know and do appreciate the role the US has played in Northern Ireland and Bosnia. But the country has also been much too hubristic and self-obsessed and almost every Briton I know, white and black, would agree with this.

Britons, I feel, understand geopolitical realities better than Americans and this is due entirely to the fact that our media – even at it most dumbed down – manages to communicate complex truths and to give people a little more of a sense of history and consequences. It is to our credit that even our tabloids have done this and sometimes more convincingly than the serious broadsheets. In the US unless you read the heavyweight publications, even today, the rest of the world barely exists in the consciousness of most Americans.

The cultural and commercial imperialism of the US is regarded with great suspicion by many Britons, a tad hypocritical you might say for a nation which is still so proud of its own imperial past. Americans feel patronised, mocked by Britons and at times sense that their contributions to European stability remain unrecognised by ungrateful Britons. As she struggles so far away from home in cold little Oxford, Chelsea may be finding it hard, but what she is experiencing will, in the end, give her a more sophisticated understanding of what is special or not about the Anglo-American relationship in the 21st century.

y.alibhaibrown@independent.co.uk.

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