Viewpoint – Why did President Obama enter the fray on Brexit?


By Lord David Triesman, Executive Director, Salamanca Group

It is increasingly difficult in a cynical age to be surprised by anything said in the heat of a political campaign. Yet the fury directed at President Obama for saying he wanted, even that he needed, the UK to remain in the EU was a jolt for three reasons.

The first, not to be underestimated, is the visceral dislike of Obama by those in the UK more naturally aligned with the Republican Party’s tea-party wing in the USA who plainly hate him. Whilst it is only part of the Republican Party it is significant and the alignment is only with a smallish segment of UK political opinion, and these affinities run deep, based on long friendships. It is not antipathy to American presidents per se but certainly to this one. It would probably be the same if a President Hillary Clinton is elected. It is likely that the views of a President Cruz would have been welcomed. Goodness knows what anyone would make of the thoughts of a President Trump.

The second reason is more prosaic. Whatever the febrile character of any referendum battle, in general we hope we will get back to something like normal afterward. Of course, the blood-letting on this occasion may make it a tall order. Nonetheless, the short-term advantages of denouncing the Commander-in-Chief of your principal ally by questioning his integrity or sanity seem woefully small compared with taking a longer-term view of the relationships damaged.

And as everyone knows, if Obama had said the opposite it would have been seized upon with relish by the politicians and media now denouncing Obama. The Special Relationship would have been on all lips. If ‘special’ means anything, it is surely the relationship to which you turn when you really want a friend to tell you what they think may be important for your future. The advice may be ignored but silence is not the hallmark of a special relationship.

It was a third issue that seemed most surprising because it involves such a massive loss of long-term memory about US history and strategic objectives. It is rather as though we had never heard of Roosevelt, Eisenhower or Kissinger.

Put baldly, whilst Europe has for several centuries tried unsuccessfully to rest its security architecture on a balance of power between sovereign states, with the innovation of designating some as guaranteed to be neutral, Britain had become in this scheme the balancer. The UK was effective because it had freedom to act and a proven ability to do so. It became most closely bound to the USA largely because the USA was not strategically focused on the balance of power in a blood-thirsty continent. Even in its more isolationist periods, the USA strategists saw their role as imposing world order by one means or another.

After 1945 they restructured a new economic order through the Marshall Plan and Bretton Woods. They anchored a new defensive alliance designed for a nuclear-armed world through NATO. Europe was treated as, in effect, the USA if an emergency arose.

While Europe in part designed this approach through Konrad Adenauer and Robert Schuman, and most certainly embraced it with enthusiasm, it was the Americans who organised it and paid for it. They contribute about 75 per cent of NATO’s budget. But it also had the downside of distracting them from other objectives. It is a recent development for example which has allowed them to focus on the economic and strategic rise of China. To have space for these initiatives, it is necessary not to have to worry ceaselessly about Europe or the possible start of a new Cold War.

In all this, for the USA the UK was the key European ally, bound by shared history and language and a credible bridge. If this modern Europe unravels because the ally departs the scene, the USA and its President are certain to say, as a hyperpower (and we don’t of course think like a hyperpower), that they lose some vital certainties. They may well have to strategise anew in Europe, may have to revisit 60 years of diplomatic work, and may have to redirect thinking to European defence for which they have substantially paid. Their and Europe’s chiefs-of-staff inevitably analyse the consequences of disentangling the EU and NATO and, as the military have stressed, the interlinkage is profound.

If the special relation didn’t shout loudly or at least speak up now, then that surely would be the surprise. You don’t have to agree, but it is always good to hear from friends of long-standing.

This article is part of our June 2016 Private Office Newsletter.

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