Even after nearly two terms in office, Barack Obama still travels remarkably well. A Pew poll last year showed that about three-quarters or more of voters across France, Germany and Britain trusted the US president generally to “do the right thing” in world affairs. His 76 per cent approval rating in Britain alone is remarkable. Statistics suggest that an Obama visit can have a strange effect. After a brief tour of India in January 2015, his approval ratings there jumped from 48 per cent to 74 per cent.
The Conservative government’s hope in welcoming Obama to the UK this month will be that some of this gold dust rubs off on David Cameron. More specifically, the aim is to provide a boost to the beleaguered Remain campaign, which is suffering from the travails that often face the stronger power engaged in asymmetric warfare. Downing Street officials are calling his presence in London “Obama Direct”.
For Cameron, this is part of a strategy to create a cacophony of authoritative voices – from the IMF’s to that of “the leader of the free world” – backing the argument for Remain. The Brexiters have reacted angrily to the intervention, pointing out that the US would never accept the limitations on its sovereignty that EU membership requires of the UK. Yet this is no deviation from the US script of the past seven decades.
Since the Schuman Declaration of 9 May 1950, which called for a “supranational community” and was a forerunner to the EU, Britain has been sidestepping American pressure to immerse itself further in Europe. It was only through gymnastic feats and with the distraction of the Korean War that the Labour foreign secretary Ernest Bevin was able to keep Britain aloof from the Schuman Plan while continuing to cash US cheques under the Marshall Plan.
For Obama, Brexit is just one of several important items on the agenda for his tour of Europe and the Middle East. In London, the discussion will focus on Islamic State and Russia, which will be in the in-tray of the next president in January 2017.
Obama is not the first holder of the office to take to Air Force One in search of a foreign policy legacy at the end of his second term. Yet he is less obviously hyperactive about this than many of his predecessors – certainly less so than his current secretary of state, John Kerry. The president’s series of interviews with the Atlantic magazine in March was an attempt to put a gloss on his record in a different way: to put a name, or a doctrine, on a series of rather unconnected foreign policy instincts.
One consequence of the interview was to cause consternation – or, more accurately, concern – among established US allies, such as the UK, to whose “free-riding” on global security matters the president objected. The visit to Britain was, however, scheduled long before the Atlantic article appeared and should not be viewed as a recovery mission to smooth over tensions. For Cameron, who was momentarily stung by the allegation that he got “distracted by a range of other things” after the 2011 intervention in Libya, this will seem less important if Obama plays an effective part and influences the EU referendum debate in his favour.
American friendship remains too important to spend long licking one’s wounds after a few sharp words. This is truer still for Saudi Arabia, which Obama was scheduled to visit before London. The Saudis, once the chief US allies in the Middle East, have been much perturbed by Washington’s pivot away from the region and the warming of relations with Iran, which Riyadh regards as the single greatest threat to regional stability. In response to the “Obama doctrine”, the Saudis have boldly pronounced a “[King] Salman doctrine”. This has so far involved extensive military operations in Yemen and the creation of closer military ties with Sunni states such as Turkey, Pakistan and Egypt, bolstered by a $150bn rearmament programme.
The Saudi image problem cannot be pinned on Obama. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have expressed support for a bipartisan bill that could hold the Saudi government liable for failing to do more to prevent the terror attacks of 11 September 2001. Deeper trends lie beneath this cooling of relations. Above all, the US-Saudi alliance has been undercut by the shale gas revolution and America’s decreasing need for Middle Eastern oil.
Closer to home, following the end of the Cold War, there would come a moment when the US would grow tired of paying the lion’s share for European security. Obama can conceivably argue that his “tough love” has made a difference. He addressed defence spending in candid discussions with Cameron at last year’s G7 summit. A few weeks later, George Osborne delivered his Budget promise to meet the commitment of spending at least 2 per cent of GDP on defence, as required of Nato members.
The usual cast of characters queueing up to pronounce the death of the “special relationship” are missing the point. Almost ten years ago, at the height of the Iraq War, a rather obscure US state department official, Kendall Myers, suggested: “There never really has been a special relationship, or at least not one we’ve noticed.” What was really remarkable was that his comments caused such soul-searching here. “London’s bridge is falling down” was the front-page headline in the Times.
In a bizarre twist, Myers and his wife were arrested three years later for spying for Cuba (he is now serving a life sentence). He may well have had an ulterior motive in running down an American ally. And yet, a decade later, there is a certain salience to his broader point. These days, the idea of Britain as the “Atlantic bridge” between the US and Europe – beloved of British prime ministers since Churchill – looks creakier than anyone could have predicted then.
This article appears in the 20 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater