The not-so-special relationship with the US

The trouble is that Blair can't really deliver what America wants, or what it can't get directly

Adrian Hamilton

10 February 2005

Condoleezza Rice can't have meant it, but almost everything she has said or done on her trip this week has served to show just how irrelevant Britain is becoming to the US.

The British Government announces proudly a London summit on the Middle East in March, and the lady comes over and promptly announces a plan for a full peace summit in Washington in April/May, which would make the London meeting redundant.

"Prime Minister Tony Blair," Dr Rice declared in a sentence implicitly dismissing all London's hopes of being the peacemaker, "will convene an important conference to help the Palestinian people advance democratic reform and build their institutions. All of us support this effort." You can't get more patronising than that.

In the same way, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown declare that they would use the UK presidency of the G8 to revolutionise the West's assistance to Africa, and the US Under Secretary of the Treasury arrives in London last Friday to pronounce that the US doesn't believe in the UK's financing plan and isn't going to join it.

The Prime Minister pronounces that the UK will lead a new push on the environment and hints that the US will this time join in, and the subject doesn't even get a mention in the President's State of the Union address.

The only thing that London seems to have got out of a second-term Bush administration is a release of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, and this was done at the same time as dozens of Afghans were set free, along with an Australian whom Canberra hadn't even pressed to see back home again.

Of course, it could be that Washington is actually doing this to help an ally who they realise could be embarrassed by too much overt US favour at election time. As a British minister discreetly puts it: "Thank heavens the President is not coming to Britain on his European tour later this month. It would only remind voters of what we've done in his support."

But it's not simply that Britain, like Denmark, Spain and Poland, decided its future had to lie with America and seemed to get precious little in return. From the beginning of President Bush's first term, Number 10 put out a narrative of exceptional intimacy: that Blair and Bush enjoyed a special rapport, that Britain had gained particular access and influence by supporting the Iraq invasion, and that this was an alliance of friends and equals.

It's beginning to look as if it was all a fantasy of the Prime Minister's office. Of course Britain's contribution to the invasion force brought it special access and privileged exchange of information. Of course Tony Blair gets a special welcome when he goes to the US.

But if you listened carefully to Condoleezza's press conferences and speeches over the last few days, two things became very obvious. One is that, in so far as the US does now seek European support, it seeks it directly through the EU, Nato, and the countries such as France and Germany which can deliver most.

The second is that Washington, under a second Bush administration, still sees foreign policy as a pursuit of US interests for which it wants support, not partnership. In her speech at Science Po in Paris, Condoleezza Rice constantly referred to what America's allies "must" do, as if it were not only a question of power but one of right.

The trouble for Blair is that he can't really deliver what America wants, or what it can't get by direct communication elsewhere. With the demise of Arafat, Washington doesn't require an intermediary to influence the Palestinians. Equally, it can now talk face-to-face to Paris or Berlin.

Worse for Blair, he actually failed to deliver those countries, despite promising to do so in the run-up to war. If Washington fell out with Paris, that isn't half the rage that London felt against President Chirac for showing up the emptiness of its assurances to America, and there is a long way to go before that is smoothed over.

For all the guff written about the special intimacy between the British Prime Minister and the US President, you only have to watch the two of them together to see they are not soulmates. Blair is a politician who likes words to create moods. Bush has little appreciation for words. He likes deeds and has little time for men who can't deliver. The fact that Blair seems constantly to be having to assuage his own party and public opinion over the war doesn't help his standing. If anything, one suspects that Bush is jealous of Blair's ability to articulate, but mildly irritated by the UK's constant demands to be noticed.

It is a bitter irony, but Blair - who put so much emphasis on acting as a bridge between America and Europe - has actually become irrelevant because he can't deliver either one to the other. To be the success that Blair wants as President of the G8, he needed the US to back his ideas, which they seem not just reluctant to do, but uninterested in doing. To be a success as president of the EU in the second half of this year, he needs to show that he can bring Europe behind him, hardly a likely prospect in view of the continued mutual resentments between Paris and London, and the fact that the country will still not have voted on the European constitution.