The world after Bush

Former UK ambassador to the US, Christopher Meyer, predicts more continuity than change from the US

It’s fairly clear that Gordon Brown is waiting for a new president to set a pattern for British-American relations over the next few years. The signals sent from London have been those of cool distance from George W. Bush. Tony Blair’s "hug them close" approach is dead and buried, at least until January 2009 and the inauguration of Bush’s successor.

I cannot recall any American President attracting the obloquy abroad suffered by George W. Bush. From the very beginning it went wrong, with a French newspaper talking in 2000 of the “cretinisation” of American politics, a view widely held in Britain too. A brief comeback for his reputation, which surfed a wave of sympathy for America after 9/11, was rapidly aborted by hostility to the war in Iraq. There is nothing easier today than to raise a laugh in public at Bush’s expense (actually that’s not true – Don Rumsfeld is an even easier target). This is not the kind of leader with whom Brown wants to be intimately associated.

The near-universal disdain for Bush is a big factor driving the unusual level of British interest in the American elections. Of course, there is a lot else besides. Obama-mania has crossed the Atlantic. People are intrigued at the possibility of a woman in the White House. The absence of an obvious Republican front-runner has added to the spice. Then there is the joker in the pack: the possible third-party candidacy of New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, just when increasing numbers of Americans are registering as independent voters at the expense of the two big parties.

With a black and a woman in contention, there is on both sides of the Atlantic an expectation of change, big change, in 2009. This has driven all the candidates, Democratic and Republican, to resort to the rhetoric of change. But, as Michael Kinsley tartly noted in the New York Times, “change sounds dynamic without committing you to anything in particular. Any slogan shared by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is going to be pretty meaningless.”

In Britain we would do well to temper our hopes for change after the passing of Bush. Let us assume, as the US Federal Reserve and Treasury do, that the American economy weakens further this year. Let us also assume – a more uncertain bet – that Iraq continues relatively quiet, with low American casualties, even as the “surge” recedes. Come election day in November the overwhelming concern of Americans will be the economy, with a particular focus on jobs and immigration. Globalisation and free trade are already seen as destroying, to coin a phrase, American jobs for American workers. On this analysis, “change” points to greater economic nationalism with the emphasis on “fair” trade at the expense of free trade. To borrow again from Kinsley, that would in reality be protection from change. For us in Britain it would be change for the worse.

But economic nationalism is not isolationism. The United States is too tightly enmeshed in the affairs of the world for that. It is one of the engines of globalisation. The next President will inherit more than 100,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even Barack Obama does not promise a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq. The question is not, will Bush’s successor engage with the outside world, but how? Over the past 50 years or so, the US has sometimes acted abroad unilaterally, sometimes through international organisations, sometimes through bilateral treaties, sometimes in so-called coalitions of the willing. It has always acted against a hard-headed cost/benefit analysis of where its national interest lies.

The neo-conservative ascendancy was an ideological aberration from this “realist”, pragmatic tradition of US foreign policy. The gates were thrown open to it by the shock and horror of 9/11, something that we in Britain constantly underestimate in its personal impact on the President. Before 9/11 Bush’s foreign policy was settling comfortably into the traditional mainstream. Seven years later, with the neo-cons in retreat, Bush’s drive for a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians looks like a reversion to the pre-9/11 template. All this assumes, of course, that there is no terrorist attack on the US mainland in 2008.

Whoever wins in November, on the basis of what the main candidates are saying on Iraq - the issue which has most divided British public opinion from the US - there will be more continuity of policy than rupture. And consider this. What if, against the odds, Bush breaks the stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians? What if, against the odds, Shia, Sunni and Kurd in Iraq inch towards a new and durable settlement? What if Bush decides to engage directly with Iran?

None of this is unthinkable. If it comes to pass, won’t we want continuity, not change, from the next president of the United States?

Christopher Meyer will be a speaker at the Fabian Society Change the World conference on 19 January