London's Mixed Signals
Britain's new leader recalibrates Washington ties
LONDONIn mid-July, just weeks after Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair as Britain's prime minister, two of his key lieutenants made speeches that were vaguely critical of Bush White House foreign policies. Almost immediately afterward, Brown and Foreign Secretary David Miliband began trumpeting unambiguous assurances that Britain remained America's best friend and that the historical alliance linking the two countries "was not broken."
Did Browna stern-faced, hulking Scotclumsily stumble coming out of the gate by sending mixed messages to Washington? Perhaps not. What's more likely is that the new premier successfully executed the first pirouette of a tricky dance choreographed to distance himself and the United Kingdom from the very unpopular President George W. Bush, while simultaneously looking out for the decades-old "special relationship" between the two countries. "It wasn't so much a mixed signal as a clear signal," and it's one that Brown will continue to telegraph, says Robert McGeehan, an expert on U.S.-British relations.
The message: It's possible to be America's staunchest ally while still putting a fair amount of clear-blue sky between 10 Downing Street and the current occupant of the White House. Rodney Barker, a professor of government at the London School of Economics, says the distinction is subtle but important. "It's not criticism of U.S. policy; it's criticism of Bush and Cheney policy."
Brown also indicated a change of course by being one of the only prime ministers to not make Washington their first overseas destination. He was due to meet with Bush at Camp David on Sunday and Monday, having already visited Paris and Berlin.
No lapdog. Brown's predecessor, Blair, was unstinting in his support for the much-loathed Iraq war. And his chumminess with the president earned him the sobriquet "Bush's poodle." Accordingly, Blair's popularity plummeted, forcing him to hand the keys to Number 10 to Brown, his chancellor of the exchequer. With Blair out, the party has enjoyed a healthy bounce in the polls. That's a lesson that won't be lost on Brown. And given Bush's dropping poll numbers, it's an opportune time for Brown to part ways with the lame-duck president. "Gordon Brown's going with the flow; he's going with the grain," says Stefan Halper, a University of Cambridge foreign policy expert.
When the initial pas de deux between Brown and Bush finally occurs this week, no one doubts the two will be all smiles in public. But privately, it was expected that the soft-spoken, plain-talking Brown might step on some toes and wouldn't hesitate to disagree with Bush on some issues, including Iraq, Iran, and global warming.
Neither side will want to risk a full-blown rupture in relations, and Brown wouldn't want to be known as the prime minister who broke the special relationship. That's why Barker thinks Brown will pull off the distancing act. "We can still be friends," says Barker, "but we'll be a more critical friend."
This story appears in the August 6, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.