Tonight sees the long awaited release of the third series of Kevin Spacey’s ‘House of Cards’ adaptation (note: ‘series’ not ‘season’). Expect little to be done in Westminster this weekend as political obsessives indulge their fascination with the politics of the US.
I stand guilty as charged, but – like the FT’s Janan Ganesh – I confess to being infuriated by the British commentariat that obsesses over US politics. So much of this commentary consists of banal, poorly informed fan-boy observation masquerading as insight.
But a real political drama concerning the future relationship between Britain and the US began last week when Jeb Bush gave a wide-ranging foreign policy speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The speech went largely unobserved by the British media but Bush gave a warm, occasionally compelling and genuinely impressive erudition of his world view. (I didn’t watch the speech in my lavish penthouse as I worked out on my rowing machine, but instead stood peeling potatoes as sleet battered the kitchen window and the shed door flapped in a gale. It’s eerily similar, I know.)
In a clear preface to his presidential bid, Bush sought to distance himself from his father and brother in an intelligent, considered manner. Of all the skills required to succeed in politics – however temporarily – a deftness of touch is chief amongst them. Bush has to be his ‘own man’ without distancing himself from the last two successful Republican presidential candidates – irrespective of their surnames.
You have to check the small print for the real story here, however. As Bush spoke about the foreign policy challenges facing the US and its international partners, Britain wasn’t mentioned once. South America, Canada, Australia, Indonesia and more were listed as Bush’s global strategic bedfellows. In terms of the EU, only Germany received any recognition. Britain’s omission from this list of valued international partners seen as being necessary to successfully resolve the growing crises in the middle east, the Ukraine and elsewhere is unlikely to have been an oversight, nor does it represent a calculated snub. In terms of realpolitik, Bush has illustrated a growing British malaise: our current pointlessness on the world stage.
Germany and France sought to resolve the Greek debt crisis without any recourse to the British Prime Minister. The crisis in the Ukraine has been met by a truly feeble British response. The prime minister has indulged in the most dangerous, naive Euroscepticism, isolating us within the EU as he aligns the Conservatives with parties of the extreme right-wing fringe. Our influence and ability to yield ‘soft’ power has visibly diminished and the prime minister’s personally toxic mixture of vanity and denial have left Britain more isolated on the world stage than it has ever been in modern times. Bush – and those around him – see this clearly. Hilary Clinton will, too. Whether by accident or design, in thought and in deed, David Cameron has become an enfeebled Little Englander.
So much for soft power, what about physical power? The cuts to our armed services have significantly reduced our military capability. This capability may never be restored.
House of Bush
Why does this matter to us?
Bush’s decision to dispense with any notion of ‘the special relationship’ with his first major pronouncements on world affairs for the benefit of a domestic audience is fascinating. It’s also refreshing. You don’t need to be Henry Kissinger to read between the lines – Britain’s future as a major international player is within the European Union or it is nothing – that’s the clear inference of the Bush speech. It’s also the reality.
Secondly, it matters because Bush – like countless presidents and presidential candidates before him – sees US foreign policy as a domestic issue. This isn’t simply about soft or hard power, but America’s place in the world and how Americans see themselves. It’s a useful template and one that we should adopt (or more accurately re-adopt). Seen through this prism, our foreign policy casts our place in the world in serious doubt. Listless and floundering, we should see this as a domestic issue and ensure that David Cameron accounts for his abysmal failures. Faced with potential internal separation and a self-emolliating extraction from the European Union, Britain’s place in the world is an issue of tangible importance to a general public: that senses our fading international importance in a visceral, profound way.
British politicians should take note.
Born poor, stay poor
But the lessons didn’t stop there. Bush has cleverly challenged his party. His approach – so far – is to appeal to the American people, not his party funders and activisits. In conversation with the 750-strong Chicago audience, Bush declared that multiculturalism was one of America’s strengths. It’s one of ours, too, but you won’t find a Conservative leader in Britain making the case for this anytime soon. Nor would you ever find this kind of commentary from a British Conservative leader. Responding to a question about economic inequality in the US, Bush said that the “stickiness of poverty is a huge issue…babies born in the wrong ZIP code may never have a job…If you’re born poor in America today, you’re more likely to stay poor”. He also pointed out that the same immobility applies to the rich: “we are sticky at the ends, but the middle class is getting squeezed.”
We’ve heard this somewhere before. Politics is a complicated business, but some of the most effective ways of achieving success are incredibly simple: challenging your party by speaking to your country – and not your base – may just be one of them.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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