Leader: An American in London

Some may question if Barack Obama has a right to contribute to the EU referendum debate. But his long involvement with the UK has earned him the right to be respectfully heard.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, there was much speculation about the end of the so-called special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom. Born and brought up in distant Hawaii, the new president was certainly no Anglophile. On moving in to the Oval Office, he replaced a bust of Winston Churchill with one of Abraham Lincoln. Anonymous White House officials briefed that, far from enjoying special status, the UK was just another country. When Gordon Brown visited Washington, DC in the early months of Mr Obama’s tenure, he presented the president with an ornamental pen holder carved from the timbers of a Victorian anti-slave ship. In return, he was given a box set of 25 classic American movies that did not work in a British DVD player. The gesture was perceived as a slight to the Labour prime minister.

Yet Mr Obama can hardly be accused of failing to engage with America’s closest ally over the past eight years. His visit to Britain this week includes the usual diplomatic pleasantries: lunch with the Queen, dinner with her grandchildren. Its purpose, however, is obvious: to help keep the UK inside the European Union.

The noisiest advocates of Brexit have spent the period since the announcement of Mr Obama’s visit pompously denouncing a Democrat president to whom they were, in any case, hardly well disposed. Boris Johnson has waffled on idiotically about violations of British sovereignty to which Americans would never consent. The disgraced former defence secretary Liam Fox wrote a letter to the US ambassador in London which warned the president against “becoming embroiled in what is a highly delicate, sensitive and important issue for the British people”. Mr Fox showed no such qualms about getting involved in other countries’ internal ­affairs in 2012, when he was reported to be “feeding ideas” to Mitt Romney’s inner circle.

Campaigners for Brexit have every right to express their views on other countries’ politics but they should not be given the licence to be hypocritical about it. They must accept that the president of the United States has the authority to express a view on important geopolitical decisions made by the United Kingdom and that this becomes an obligation when the decisions concern Europe.

However reluctant it might have been at first, the US fought alongside the UK in two world wars. After the Second World War, it led the reconstruction of western Europe through the Marshall Plan. Europe was one of the main theatres of Cold War rivalry. The US is the cornerstone of Nato, which has served since 1949 as the bulwark against Russian expansionism into Europe. For an American president not to hold a view on whether global security would be enhanced or diminished by Brexit would be absurd. For Mr Obama not to speak out for fear of offending a dismal parade of Tory backbenchers would be ludicrous.

At a time of turmoil in the Middle East, a refugee crisis in Europe and a resurgence in Russian aggression, Mr Obama is rightly concerned that Brexit would destabilise the EU, which plays a crucial role in strengthening the West and is a powerful force for an international rules-based order. He recognises that the UK can and should use its international clout to shape and even lead the EU’s response to the urgent challenges of our time.

Moreover, Mr Obama has earned the right to be heard respectfully with his record in office and his deliberative style and nuanced tone. The current presidential primaries have exposed the coarse edges of American society, yet he remains a civilised and civilising reminder of how great that country can be.

Much as the Brexiters might wish otherwise, that is the view of most Britons, too. In June last year, 76 per cent of UK voters trusted him “to do the right thing regarding world affairs”. In September 2014, Mr Obama had a net approval rating of +49 among the British public, compared to David Cameron’s -12. Can the US president swing the EU referendum in favour of the lacklustre Remain campaign? Highly unlikely. Can he help? Yes he can. 

This article appears in the 21 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater

Free trial CSS