During his visit to the UK, President Obama has made two key interventions in the Brexit debate. How critical will this be to the outcome?
There were two headline grabbers. The first was his piece in the Daily Telegraph. The key message was a positive one, that Britain’s voice is magnified in the EU. The second, in a different meeting, came across as more threatening; Britain would head to “the back of the queue” on any future trade deals if it leaves the EU.
The gist is that America’s view, or rather his view, is that we should stay in. In fact he made the debate even bigger.
It is easy not to look beyond those headlines which Obama grabbed. However, in context, Obama highlighted the stake that the USA has in the American lives given during both Worlds Wars. His script could have been written by Paddy Ashdown who made the same points on BBC’s Question Time.
Ashdown’s own notable contribution so far is being photographed with his wires crossed with the PM.
It may be worth a sideways look at Obama’s visit. His presidency expires in 2017. He is effectively on his last legs and must have some photos for the family album from his lunch with the Queen as well as the 3rd in line to the throne.
He is clearly friendly with Cameron. The British Prime Minister himself has declared that, like Obama, will not stand as democratic leader of his country again. Much has been made of the language Obama used, the “back of the queue” being a British rather than American phrase.
For a moment, we can take a reminder of historic link of the World Wars. The USA famously entered WW2 with Pearl Harbour. Prior to 1942, help to Britain had come in the form of commercial deals for military hardware.
The United States also arrived late to WW1, in 1917. The context was that German military had targeted United States’ shipping. Germany provided support to Mexico in their attempts to recover Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, states which had come under American control some 70 years earlier.
The United States does what is in the United States’ interests. That is not to say that America’s efforts in both wars are not appreciated. Their support was not entirely philanthropic.
Of course, the United States has its own perspective. From Obama, it is not offensive to sideline the efforts of the Commonwealth. From Paddy Ashdown, ignoring the sacrifices of those Commonwealth countries whose citizens’ names adorn the Menin Gate, let alone those who have been interred around Gallipoli, amounts to ignorance.
Before returning to military implications, Obama’s second headline grabber should be investigated. The “back of the queue” comment was delivered in a wider context. Obama told his audience that the USA’s priorities are to negotiate with larger blocs.
One wonders what sort of detail Obama has been able to grasp. As a member of the EU, Britain has implicitly supported European protectionism, working against the sort of free trade deals that both Britain and America have supported in the past. Britain’s seat at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has been absorbed into an inward looking Europe’s position.
Assuming that Obama was not speaking with a forked tongue, would Britain really be pushed to the back of the queue?
Presumably, Britain would also be shunted to the back of the queue in military support for America’s overseas military operations. As we await the final Chillcot report, it adds a different perspective to any concerns over deployment of British forces, the loss of British lives and British military personnel with life changing injuries as well as British expenditure.
The interaction of American business interests does not stop there. Should Britain be looking for alternative security arrangements? Perhaps Obama is telling us that we should look further afield than the F35, to furnish our new aircraft carriers? Should we be looking at alternative partners for Trident’s replacement? Should our potential partners include France, India, even China, Iran, Israel or others?
Obama did also leave a much more positive message. He urged youngsters “to reject pessimism and cynicism, to know that progress is possible”. Perhaps this is a message that taps in to the British spirit. Despite pessimistic and cynical campaigns, focused on why we can not survive outside the EU, Obama is really telling us that we should, go for an independent role in a brave new world.
For Obama’s benefit, it may be worth highlighting some of Britain’s attributes. Britain is the 4th/5th largest economy globally, a key member of G7, the United Nations, the WTO and NATO.
Of current EU members, Britain, along with Estonia, is one of the two nations to meet the NATO target of 2% of national income on defence, the average of the rest of the EU being below 1.5%. Britain accounts for 23% of the EU’s expenditure on defence.
Central to the Commonwealth, Britain’s influence is global. Britain’s support is useful in economic, diplomatic and security issues.
Yes, Obama’s contribution is welcome. We should judge his comments critically. We can discriminate between his mixed messages, look beyond the headlines and make our own interpretation. We can recognise that in reality, the United States needs friendly allies, both in opening world trade and in its global interventions.
A final reminder to Obama comes from America’s own history. America sought its own independence from remote government. America sought to control its own destiny. 340 years later America has become the biggest economy in the world. It has become a successful free nation.
Independence is not a four letter word. If we are at the back of your queue, you afford us the opportunity to develop other alliances. Your successor might even appreciate and value us.