America - Andrew Stephen suffers a summit anti-climax

The myth of the special relationship between the US and Britain, as shown by the Blair-Bush love-in,

Watching George Bush and Tony Blair holding forth for 24 minutes in the East Room of the White House last Tuesday, I could not help thinking of my good friend Michael Thawley, the outgoing Australian ambassador here. The other day, he and his wife Debbie were invited to the White House, so that President Bush could formally say farewell. They expected to be ushered into the great man's presence for a few minutes and then to be on their way.

Instead, they were greeted not just by Bush, but by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Bob Zoellick and Paul Wolfowitz - among others. It turned out to be quite a party. The reason? John Howard, the right-wing Australian prime minister, was in Washington on 11 September 2001 and for the immediate aftermath - and his presence around Bush in those days cemented a personal relationship that Blair has simply never had.

Blair may still believe he is closer to the Bush administration than is any other foreign leader, but Australia and Howard have long since replaced Britain and Blair as the true social and ideological soulmates of the Bush administration.

If you relied solely on the British press, you might think that the Blairs had just taken Washington by storm and that the glorious love-fest was still in full swing. It is true that tickets for Cherie Blair's tacky "speaking engagement" at the Kennedy Centre on Monday evening were "sold out" - but that was only because vast blocks of tickets had been bought up by corporations, leaving significant numbers unused.

I had a prior engagement, alas, and so had to rely on the Times Online to inform me that Mrs Blair thinks her husband is "irresistible"; the following morning, I scoured the Washington Post and New York Times, but could not find a single word about Mrs Blair or the shameless self-promotion of her book The Goldfish Bowl.

It was not much better with our irresistible, five-times-a-night Prime Minister, either. It requires collusion from the media to make these so-called "summits" appear to be events of substance that bring tangible results, and so it was this time. Poor Blair actually arrived in torrential rain in the early hours of Tuesday morning at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, to be met not by military bands or cheering crowds - but by Sir David Manning, our likeable ambassador here, clutching an umbrella.

Not even Rummy or Condi or Wolfy turned out to greet him in person; that chore was left to Cecilia Herrera, an assistant chief of protocol for the US Department of State. We knew by this time, in any case, that nothing was going to come out of the "summit". Privately, the British negotiators had found the Bush administration extraordinarily unyielding in their attempts to have a bone or two over Africa or Kyoto tossed to Blair; the deceit is maintained that such matters are decided at the face-to-face meetings, when in reality the results have been painstakingly thrashed out beforehand by civil servants.

We thus knew well before Blair entered the White House on Tuesday that the most he could expect from Bush was an announcement that the US would increase funding to relieve famine in Africa by $674m (£370m) - and that duly came during the East Room photo-op.

This, sadly, was the best bone that Britain could get the United States to throw to it. I personally know several people who have more money than $674m; these days, that amount can buy roughly 15 Manhattan flats of the kind bought this year by Rupert Murdoch. More telling, though, is that the money had already been appropriated by Congress - long before Blair's visit had even been scheduled - and had only been arrived at by a little adroit reshuffling of financial statistics by the White House. It is coming out of a US agriculture department food reserve programme and from funds provided by a recent supplemental appropriations bill. Meanwhile, background briefings by US officials cited a mysterious $1.4bn that is supposedly now being given as overseas aid by the US, too. This, as far as I can make out, mainly consists of private donations given by Americans in the wake of last year's tsunami disaster - there is usually some basis of fact to the workings of the Bush spin machine, however contrived or outrageous. But Bush then baldly proclaimed alongside Blair that "we [his administration] tripled aid" - which, as far as I can see, has no basis in fact at all.

Indeed, the US government spends only 0.16 per cent of its gross national product on overseas aid, and a large proportion of that goes to Israel and other ideological, rather than humanitarian, causes. When it comes to private donations to overseas charities, the average American gives five cents a day on average, compared to the 24 cents given by the average Norwegian.

The other supposed bone that Bush tossed Blair was to allow him to imply that he had persuaded Bush to agree to cancel the $20bn debt to the IMF and World Bank owed by 33 poor countries. In fact, the Bush administration has long since accepted that such debts should be wiped out, and the only discussion remaining is on how it should be done (a triumphant Bush-Blair agreement will doubtless be announced at the Gleneagles G8 meetings next month).

So has the love-fest between Blair and the US now ended? Or have the stupendous powers of persuasion that Blair himself believes he has in such abundance finally deserted him?

The answers to both, I suspect, are that the relationship between Blair and the US was never quite the unconditional love affair it was deemed to be in Britain. Blair and his wife will always be able to make large sums of money from the American "lecture" circuit; like Margaret Thatcher and even John Major before them, they are willing to assume the roles and pretensions that the American celebrity machine expects of them.

But I suspect that, in all other respects, Blair has a woefully incomplete understanding of how America works. He has never understood that Britain and America are profoundly different countries, and that the United States broke away from Britain precisely because it wanted to be completely unlike its colonial oppressor. I mention Australia because it, too, has morphed from being a British penal settlement into a 21st-century, Oceanian version of the US.

The Howard government and the Bush administration do not need to ask what the other thinks, because they are so instinctively in tune: they are not interested, like those effete and outdated Europeans, in namby-pamby garbage such as the Kyoto Protocol or humanitarian aid to Africans.

Blair, unlike Howard, has little idea or instinct about the American way. Providing British troops as a symbolic offering to demonstrate unconditional support for the US is not enough; it is only by turning his back on British and European principles, as Australia has done, that he can be truly accepted here. To the Bush administration, he remains for ever suspect on, for example, Kyoto and the International Criminal Court.

Britain and the rest of Europe still believe, just about, that there is some virtue in helping to feed starving African babies; the Bush administration now responds by mantra to rationalise its inaction, wearily insisting that starving Africans and the like can be helped only by the imposition of what Bush calls American values. "We're not really interested in supporting a government [sic] that doesn't have open economics and open markets," he declared, with Blair at his side, on Tuesday. "We require the African leadership [sic] also to be prepared to make the commitment on governance against corruption, in favour of democracy, in favour of the rule of law."

Perhaps, as Britain's all-too-resistible Prime Minister flew back across the Atlantic less than 24 hours after he had arrived here, he was anxiously mulling over the widening differences between British and continental European ways, and those of the US. Perhaps he was wondering how he can now extricate himself from being so hopelessly caught between the two.

It would be nice to think so, but I suspect he was far too eager to hear more about his wife's showbiz triumphs at the Kennedy Centre. It happened just a few blocks, after all, from his very own big international gig of the month at the White House.