Leading article: The real purpose of this visit was not to praise, but to persuade

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The Independent Online

When a political leader is running low on friends at home, the last thing he or she wants to do is alienate allies abroad. No doubt that explains why Gordon Brown's second official trip to the United States this week has left such a different impression compared with his first visit last July. At Camp David, nine months ago, the newly installed Prime Minister seemed keen to put as much distance between himself and President Bush as diplomatic politesse allowed.

But this time around, Mr Brown has appeared much keener to ingratiate himself, even going as far to argue that the world owes President Bush "a huge debt of gratitude" for his stance on global terrorism and claiming that Britain stands "shoulder to shoulder" with the present US commander in chief. Such effusive praise inevitably grates back home, especially when applied to this particular President. But what is the substance behind it? Has Mr Brown really signed up to the Bush worldview? Actually, the Prime Minister's speech in Boston yesterday showed that his thinking diverges substantially from that of the 43rd US President.

The theme of Mr Brown's address was reform of the world's political and financial institutions and establishing what he called a "global covenant" for collaborative action. In political terms, this appears to mean reform of the United Nations and the G8 and allowing them to take a lead in dealing with crises. In other words: no more Iraq-style unilateralism. Mr Brown also proposes to widen the World Bank's ambit to include not only development, but environmental protection too. His big idea is a climate change fund to invest in clean energy and sustainable forestry programmes.

This is astute timing, because international co-operation is so manifestly needed to deal with the present turmoil in Western financial markets. Mr Brown spoke earlier this week of the need for the International Monetary Fund to co-ordinate a response to higher credit costs and cajole the banks into making their balance sheets more transparent to regulators. We should not underestimate the implications of all this: it amounts to global supervision and regulation of financial markets.

For a quarter of a century, the trend in international finance has been one of deregulation and less rigorous oversight. The banking sector has argued consistently that it ought to be allowed to regulate its own affairs. The present crisis has shown what happens when that laissez-faire dogma is taken to an extreme. Now, despite the resistance of the bankers, the political momentum is behind greater oversight. Mr Brown is seeking to align that push for greater financial co-operation between nations with greater political co-operation.

What President Bush makes of the specifics of these proposals has not been articulated. And in a sense it does not matter. The President is yesterday's man now; in office but with rapidly diminishing power. What matters is the receptiveness of the next US president, who will take office next January, to Mr Brown's proposals for a new era of global co-operation. Although Mr Brown met the three remaining challengers for the presidency privately this week in Washington, we are unlikely to know the answer to that question until the end of the campaign. But one thing is clear: the idea of working to achieve common goals through the UN and co-operating more readily with international institutions would have been given short shrift by Mr Bush at the height of his power.

The praise heaped on the US President's record this week was gratuitous, but the underlying message from Mr Brown's latest visit to America was, thankfully, very different.