Building a new special relationship

How will Barack Obama and Gordon Brown shape transatlantic ties?

    The 'special relationship' will come under increasing scrutiny during Brown's visit [GALLO/GETTY]

    As Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, holds talks with Barack Obama, the US president, in Washington, Al Jazeera's Rob Reynolds and Mark Seddon discuss the personal relationship between the two leaders and the key issues facing ties between their nations.


    Rob Reynolds, senior Washington correspondent

    It was not an awkward or uncomfortable meeting, exactly, but there was a slightly stiff quality to the Oval office get-together between Barack Obama and Gordon Brown.

    That was evident when Brown, not known for having the friendliest of personalities, ventured a cringe-worthy joke about Obama's basketball-playing abilities.

    Brown, who is suffering from flagging popularity at home and facing an election next year, may have hoped some of Obama's global star quality would rub off on him as a result of the visit.

    But the British media kicked up a furore over the style of this meeting.

    There was no joint press conference in the Rose Garden, as some UK reporters had expected. 

    In depth
    The White House said that was because the heavy snow blanketing the ground and freezing temperatures would make outdoor activities rather uncomfortable.

    Instead Obama and Brown took a few questions while sitting in the Oval Office in the White House.

    But the British media, ever on the alert for any hint of a slight or breach of protocol, immediately began writing stories about the terrible snub Obama had inflicted on  Brown.

    There has been a good deal of chatter about whether the 'special relationship' between the US and UK is over.

    Obama said any notion that there has been a weakening of the bond between the two countries was "misguided", the two countries share a common language and culture, etc, etc, and the relationship would remain, well, special.

    Obama said he and Brown get along just fine. "I think both on the economy ... and on foreign policy, we've got a shared world view that allows us to work together very effectively," he told reporters.

    Blair-Bush legacy

    It is certainly true that Tuesday's meeting was in sharp contrast with the first official encounter between George Bush, Obama's predecessor and Tony Blair, the former British prime minister.

    The two leaders are unlikely to be as close
    as Tony Blair, left, and George Bush [EPA]
    Back in those more innocent, pre-9/11, pre-Iraq and pre-economic-collapse days , the two went up to the presidential retreat at Camp David together for a friendly chat.

    Bush joked that the two men shared the same taste in toothpaste.

    And Blair began what critics joked was his role as Bush's trusty canine companion.

    It was a bond that would carry them to mutually assured political destruction — not to mention the war on Iraq.

    In contrast to Bush, of course, Obama has rock-star status in the UK and Europe.

    And having lived in both London and in Washington, I believe this constant hand-wringing insecurity over the status and "specialness" of the US-UK relationship is something that people in the UK spend a lot more time worrying about than Americans do.

    Let the psychologists figure out what that is all about.

    Brown referred to the president in familiar terms, as "Barack"; Obama kept it business-like, speaking only of "Prime Minister Brown".

    Maybe a little less personal swooning between leaders is a good thing.  

    Mark Seddon, diplomatic correspondent

    In Britain, politicians often refer to something called the "special relationship" when they talk of the country's relations with the United States.

    Afghanistan was also likely to feature on the
    agenda of the two leaders [AFP]

    No more so than now, as Gordon Brown arrives in Washington to meet Barack Obama.

    Many in the British media had doubted that Brown would be the first European leader to cross the White House threshold.

    Some claimed that since members of Obama's family had fallen foul of British colonial rule in Kenya, the president was far more likely to entertain Chancellor Merkel of Germany or President Sarkozy of France before he met Brown.

    An added honour for Britain's prime minister is the invitation for him to address the US congress.

    He is only the fifth British prime minister to be accorded the privilege, following in the footsteps of Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.

    'Tremendous lobbying'

    That there has been tremendous lobbying of the White House by Downing Street, there can be no doubt.

    That Brown's advisers hope that the prime minister's collapsing poll ratings could be given a boost simply by being pictured with Obama, there is little doubt either.

    And while talk of a "special relationship" may be a particularly British obsession, there is little doubt that both Brown and Obama are politically close.

    Brown has cultivated relations with the US Democrats for over two decades. Before he became prime minister he holidayed each year in Cape Cod, a favourite destination for the Democratic elite.

    But it is the economy and the Anglo-American response to the global financial melt-down that really binds the two together.

    Both Obama and Brown have argued for a global response to the crisis, they have adopted a policy of massive stimulus packages to ailing banks and car manufacturers.

    Both have also warned against the threat of protectionism, as pressures within Europe and North America pull in other directions.

    Britain has also argued strongly in support of Obama's troop surge in Afghanistan, calling on European allies to come up with the extra resources and men that both countries believe are needed.

    But it is the economy that will play centre stage at meetings.

    This global crisis, some believe, has its roots in the free market, light-touch regulation policies that characterised the "big bang" in the City of London and on Wall Street.

    So if the credit crunch is the product of the free market Anglo-American model, a model urged on the rest of the world, many people may be a little sceptical of any immediate remedies that emerge from Brown's visit to Washington DC.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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