Advance billing suggested that President Bush would face an unpleasant ordeal in London last week with vast demonstrations, widespread public hostility, and perhaps some personal humiliation. As things turned out, however, his state visit was little short of a triumph.
Some of the credit for this success must go to the president’s critics in and out of the media. They had hyped the expected demonstrations in London to such an extent that the most powerful man in the world began to look like an underdog–and so to win at least a little sympathy from a fair-minded British public.
Then, when only 70,000 demonstrators turned up–about a quarter of the numbers who marched in Countryside Alliance protest against the proposed ban on fox-hunting a few years ago‹the anti-Bush demos looked like a simple flop.
Al Qaeda helped even more.
The three bombs that exploded in Istanbul changed the political logic and the emotional background of the London visit. They confirmed President Bush’s main diplomatic argument‹America and Britain are at war with terrorism whether we like it or not since al Qaeda has declared war on us. That the Istanbul victims included Turks and Turkey–the ally that had opted out of the Iraq war–demolished the demonstrators’ fallback argument that terrorism was a response to Anglo-American aggression.
And at a time when real terrorists were murdering British diplomats, Jewish worshippers and Muslim passers-by in a democratic Muslim nation, posters depicting President Bush as the world’s Number One terrorist seemed a vicious obscenity rather than the edgy satire the demonstrators hoped. That did not stop the hard-core demonstrators, of course, but most other people wanted to dissociate themselves from such sympathy for the Devil. Even before the bombings, moreover, the media had got the British people wrong. Conventional wisdom in the media was that the continuing troubles in Iraq had turned British opinion against America. But when the left-wing Guardian newspaper commissioned a poll on attitudes to the U.S., the results proved disconcertingly pro-American.
Sixty-two percent of respondents said that they regarded the U.S. as a force for good in the world compared to only 15 percent who thought of it as an “evil empire.” (America would get less support on many U.S. campuses.) Those Brits who thought the war on Iraq was justified outnumbered its critics by 47 to 41 percent. And, finally, there was a similar majority of those welcoming the president¹s visit over those who resented it.
Still, this unexpected good will could have been squandered if Mr. Bush had lived down to the media caricature of himself as a slightly dim, very inarticulate, cruder-than-crude oil, trigger-happy Texan cowboy. Most Brits have seen too little of Mr. Bush personally to reach an independent verdict on him. And the Texan style does not win applause everywhere.
All went well. The president¹s set-piece speech was both a brilliant piece of oratory, nicely spiced with self-deprecating humor, and a powerful political argument that moderated and even dispelled the hostile impressions of him and his policy. Even the Guardian, perhaps shaken by its poll, praised the speech. But what did it signify?
Most analyses have concentrated on its central “three pillars.” And these were indeed vital.
His first pillar–that America was committed to international institutions and multilateral methods in foreign policy–went a long way towards soothing European anxieties that America under George W. Bush was a kind of rogue nation pursuing its interests without reference to allies or the United Nations.
His second pillar–that international bodies existed to deter aggression and to protect human rights and that, if they failed in these tasks, nation states would have to step in–was the corollary. It served notice that multilateralism was not a free ride. In the last resort the U.S. would expect its allies to join with it in using force against violent dictators and other threats to international order. France and Germany cannot opt out of history and continue influencing it.
His third pillar was more controversial‹the only basis for long-term stability in the greater Middle East is the replacement, however gradual, of repressive regimes by democracies and U.S. diplomacy will work towards this. Though no one objects to the goal of a democratic Middle East, many observers suspect that its pursuit will be fraught with difficulty, potentially destabilizing, and not always in line with medium-term U.S. and Western interests.
Look, for instance, at the results of U.S. pressure on the shah of Iran to move towards democracy. It led to the shah’s overthrow, the imposition of an Islamist theocracy, turmoil in the region, war with Iraq, oil-price hikes that devastated the world economy, and a regime that is seeking to acquire nuclear weapons covertly. America is powerful but not omnipotent. It cannot conjure good governments out of thin air–or despotic traditions.
Still, the logic of these three pillars for America’s European allies is that they should join the U.S. in seeking common goals, including Middle Eastern democracy, in order to influence its methods of achieving them. In London at least, this logic is generally accepted.
That acceptance may be significant in the light of other important passages in the president’s speech paying tribute to the Anglo-American special relationship in the warmest terms since 1945. He pointed out that many of America’s qualities–in law, language, politics, even diplomacy–can be traced to the British connection. In particular he observed that the idealistic strain in U.S. foreign policy derives from a similar tradition in British policy that included, for instance, the Royal Navy’s suppression of the slave trade.
Most foreign-policy analysts are uncomfortable with such appeals to common values and traditions. They regard them as a sentimental diversion from a foreign policy rooted soundly in cold interest. But common traditions and values produce a common way of looking at the world–and that in turn promotes easier cooperation between like-minded nation states.
In addition to which there is a new factor at work. As globalization and the Internet abolish economic distance, so culture gradually overtakes geography as a factor in international politics. It may not be accidental that since September 11, the nations that have been consistently most supportive of the U.S. in the war on terrorism have been the English-speaking nations–the so-called Anglosphere–notably Britain and Australia and even Canada (though Ottawa, uniquely on this matter, prefers to do good by stealth.) Nor that British public opinion is more sympathetic to the U.S. than opinion in continental Europe.
If President Bush is setting out to make the world safer through democracy, he is likely to find more reliable allies in the former British Empire worldwide than on either the European continent or the southern hemisphere. And after London we know that he already speaks the language.