Barack Obama is not a stupid man. So it is interesting when he says a patently stupid thing.
The President, who remains far more popular in the UK than in the US, was called upon by an increasingly desperate David Cameron to add his two cents to the EU referendum debate. Despite what a number of his critics say, it is altogether fitting and proper that he do this.
First there is the historical legacy the President rightly alluded to. For the past century, the US and the UK have been the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid of global politics – bickering, quarrelling, disagreeing about seemingly everything, but always, when the chips are down, coming out shooting the Bolivian army together. That alone means both London and Washington, due to the shared triumphs and tragedies of their common modern experience, have a right to their opinion of the other.
Second, the Special Relationship is about far more than merely telling Churchill stories (fun though that is) at dinners over port and cigars. It is the living, breathing, policy embodiment of how the world actually works. Be the issue Foreign Direct Investment, the name of the game in terms of globalisation, intelligence sharing (as we outlined in last week’s column), or crafting common diplomatic and military strategies for dealing with foreign policy problems, the Special Relationship remains the gold standard for how things can actually get done. As such, both partners must have a right to speak their piece.
No, it is not the supposed presumptuousness of the President that upsets me. It is the laughably obvious scare tactics he was put up to that do not speak well of either him or the British establishment, so intent on frightening the bejesus out of their own people. So let’s run the policy list one more time. Americans may talk like hippies, but they often act like gangsters. The country has always been a curious mix of high principles and low cunning, but do not expect Washington to ever set aside its national interests at the door.
Yes, it is certainly true that most Wilsonians in the Democratic Party would prefer that the UK remain in the EU, both because they have never met a multilateral institution they didn’t like, and because it is so much easier analytically to work with one institution rather than assess 28 or so separate countries. But frankly, who cares what the Democrats – including the President – think, if they do not change their policy stances as a result of thinking it. For does the President’s intervention mean that, given a Leave vote, the US is about to turn its back on its most important global partner? When pigs fly.
Will the US stop sharing intelligence with the UK through the Five Eyes agreement? No. Will the Special Relationship cease guiding Nato’s overall strategy? Hardly. Will London and Washington stop constantly coordinating their overall geostrategic policy together? Of course not.
Crucially and somewhat comically, the President, following the Remain campaign’s laughable dire warning, suggested that the US would put a trade deal with the newly liberated UK at the “back of the queue” in terms of being a priority, leaving its now chastened, pathetic, and bereft ally to go on its own way in terms of trade. First, linguistically the game was given away a little as to where this brainstorm came from, as “queue” is not a word any American who lives in North America would ever use. Obviously, this came from the briefing books of some of the Prime Minister’s friends. Pathetic, really.
But more importantly, in terms of policy, it would be absolute madness on the part of the Americans – and totally out of character – to throw away economic ties with the largest foreign direct investor in the US because of Washington’s supposed unhappiness over the right of a sovereign people to decide their own future. Trust me, a new deal will be a priority of whoever wins the next American presidential election for the simple fact that the US is unlikely to forget its primary economic interests.
What this comic interlude does reveal is the increasingly desperate nature of the Prime Minister’s referendum gamble. Having failed to move the poll numbers after trotting out every member of the global establishment it can think of, in a last desperate throw Downing Street has brought in Obama to scare the children, meaning his voters. This says far more about the state of the Remain campaign than it does about geopolitics.