In March last year I published a list of Barack Obama’s biggest insults against America’s biggest ally Great Britain, during his time in office. A lot of water has flown under the bridge since then, including the Gulf oil spill and the White House’s campaign against BP, the now infamous Obama-Sarkozy press conference earlier this year, and the release by Wikileaks of US government documents revealing the Obama administration had betrayed Britain in order to appease the Russians over the New START Treaty.
In honour of President Obama’s state visit to Britain this week, here’s an updated and revised list, as a reminder to readers of the president’s less than stellar track record when it comes to US-British relations. The US president will no doubt be careful not to offend his hosts when he travels to London, and he will receive a warm welcome from the Queen and the Prime Minister, as any American president would. But the prospect of an embarrassing diplomatic gaffe or insensitive remark cannot be ruled out from a world leader whose administration has all too often specialised in them. As I noted in my original piece:
Without a shadow of a doubt, Barack Obama has been the most anti-British president in modern American history. The Special Relationship has been significantly downgraded, and at times humiliated under his presidency, which has displayed a shocking disregard for America’s most important partner and strategic ally.
There are a multitude of reasons for President Obama’s dismissive approach to the UK, and here are a few: an obsession with engaging and appeasing America’s enemies rather than cultivating allies; personal animosity towards Britain because of his grandfather’s role as a Mau Mau supporter in 1950’s colonial Kenya; Democrat resentment over British support for the Bush Administration over Iraq; left-wing disdain for the idea of Anglo-American exceptionalism and world leadership; support for supranational institutions such as the European Union over the supremacy of the nation state.
1. Siding with Argentina over the Falklands
For sheer offensiveness it’s hard to beat the Obama administration’s brazen support for Argentina’s call for UN-brokered negotiations over the sovereignty of the Falklands, despite the fact that 255 British servicemen laid down their lives to restore British rule over the Islands after they were brutally invaded in 1982. In a March 2010 press conference in Buenos Aires with President Cristina Kirchner, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave Argentina a huge propaganda coup by emphatically backing the position of the Péronist regime.
In June last year, Mrs. Clinton slapped Britain in face again by signing on to an Organisation of American States (OAS) resolution calling for negotiations over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands, a position which is completely unacceptable to Great Britain. To add insult to injury, the Obama administration has insisted on using the Argentine term “Malvinas” to describe the Islands in yet another sop to Buenos Aires.
2. Calling France America’s strongest ally
In January this year, President Obama held a joint press conference at the White House with his French counterpart, literally gushing with praise for Washington’s new-found Gallic friends, declaring: “We don’t have a stronger friend and stronger ally than Nicolas Sarkozy, and the French people.” As I noted at the time:
Quite what the French have done to merit this kind of high praise from the US president is difficult to fathom, and if the White House means what it says this represents an extraordinary sea change in US foreign policy. Nicolas Sarkozy is a distinctly more pro-American president than any of his predecessors, and has been an important ally over issues such as Iran and the War on Terror. But to suggest that Paris and not London is Washington’s strongest partner is simply ludicrous.
These kinds of presidential statements matter. No US president in modern times has described France as America’s closest ally, and such a remark is not only factually wrong but also insulting to Britain, not least coming just a few years after the French famously knifed Washington in the back over the war in Iraq.
3. Downgrading the Special Relationship
Barack Obama very rarely refers to the Special Relationship, and has hardly even mentioned Britain in a major policy speech, either before or since taking office. The Anglo-American alliance is barely a blip on Obama’s teleprompter screen, and he acts as though it simply does not exist. The Special Relationship has also been largely erased from the official lexicon of the State Department, and is barely used by US officials in London. Despite being America’s only major reliable ally when the chips are down, London is now treated in Washington as though it were the same as any other European power, albeit less charitably than either Paris or Berlin.
4. Supporting a federal Europe and undercutting British sovereignty
The Obama administration’s relentless and wrongheaded support for the creation of a federal Europe, from backing the Treaty of Lisbon to the European Security and Defence Policy, is a slap in the face for the principle of national sovereignty in Europe. British sovereignty is non-negotiable, and Obama’s willingness to undermine it is both insulting to Britain and self-defeating for the United States.
While the Bush Administration was divided over Europe, the Obama team is ardently euro-federalist. Hillary Clinton described the Lisbon Treaty as “a major milestone in our world’s history”, and in an interview with The Irish Times in 2009 stated: “I believe [political integration is] in Europe’s interest and I believe that is in the United States’ interest because we want a strong Europe.” And in May last year, Vice President Joe Biden described Brussels as the “capital of the free world.”
And the US Ambassador to London, Louis Susman, has warned Britain that “all key issues must run through Europe.” According to a report by The Parliament.com, in a private meeting with British MEPs at an event in the European Parliament in January, Susman called for a stronger British commitment to the EU, emphatically warning against British withdrawal:
I want to stress that the UK needs to remain in the EU. The US does not want to see Britain’s role in the EU diminished in any way. The message I want to convey today is that we want to see a stronger EU, but also a stronger British participation within the EU. This is crucial if, together, we are going to meet all the global challenges facing us, including climate change and security.
5. Betraying Britain to appease Moscow over the New START Treaty
In February, The Daily Telegraph broke a major story with damaging implications for the Special Relationship, revealing that Washington “secretly agreed to give the Russians sensitive information on Britain’s nuclear deterrent to persuade them to sign a key treaty.” According to The Telegraph report:
Information about every Trident missile the US supplies to Britain will be given to Russia as part of an arms control deal signed by President Barack Obama next week. Defence analysts claim the agreement risks undermining Britain’s policy of refusing to confirm the exact size of its nuclear arsenal.
A series of classified messages sent to Washington by US negotiators show how information on Britain’s nuclear capability was crucial to securing Russia’s support for the “New START” deal. Although the treaty was not supposed to have any impact on Britain, the leaked cables show that Russia used the talks to demand more information about the UK’s Trident missiles, which are manufactured and maintained in the US.
Washington lobbied London in 2009 for permission to supply Moscow with detailed data about the performance of UK missiles. The UK refused, but the US agreed to hand over the serial numbers of Trident missiles it transfers to Britain.
6. Placing a “boot on the throat” of BP
The Obama administration’s relentless campaign against Britain’s largest company in the wake of Gulf oil spill was one of the most damaging episodes in US-UK relations in recent years, with 64 percent of Britons agreeing that the president’s handling of the issue had harmed the partnership between the two countries according to a YouGov poll. The White House’s aggressive trashing of BP, including a threat to put a “boot on the throat” of the oil giant, helped wipe out about half its share value, directly impacting the pensions of 18 million Britons. This led to a furious backlash in the British press, with even London mayor and long-time Obama admirer Boris Johnson demanding an end to “anti-British rhetoric, buck-passing and name-calling”.
7. Throwing Churchill out of the Oval Office
It is hard to think of a more derogatory message to send to the British people within days of taking office than to fling a bust of Winston Churchill out of the Oval Office and send it packing back to the British Embassy – not least as it was a loaned gift from Britain to the United States as a powerful display of solidarity in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Obviously, public diplomacy is not a concept that carries much weight in the current White House, and nor apparently is common sense.
8. DVDs for the Prime Minister
Readers of this blog will know I’m no fan of Gordon Brown, but whatever one thinks of his third-rate premiership, Brown traveled abroad not as a private individual but as the leader of America’s closest ally. He represented 61 million Britons including the Armed Forces, as well as a huge amount of British trade and investment with the United States. He was however treated shabbily when he visited the White House in March 2009, and denied a Rose Garden press conference as well as a dinner. To cap it all, the decision to send him home with an assortment of 25 DVDs ranging from Toy Story to The Wizard of Oz – which couldn’t even be played in the UK – was a breathtaking display of diplomatic ineptitude that would have shamed the protocol office of an impoverished Third World country.
9. Insulting words from the State Department
The mocking views of a senior State Department official following Gordon Brown’s embarrassing reception at the White House in March last year says it all:
There’s nothing special about Britain. You’re just the same as the other 190 countries in the world. You shouldn’t expect special treatment.
One would have thought that this kind of monumentally shallow insult would have resulted in at least a formal apology and a reprimand for the official involved, but unfortunately Obama administration apologies are strictly reserved for the French and assorted enemies of the United States.
10. Undermining British influence in NATO
Despite Nicolas Sarkozy’s distinctly unflattering opinion of Barack Obama, the US president has gone to great lengths to appease French interests, even going as far as apologising to the French people in Strasbourg for hurting their feelings over the war in Iraq. The Obama administration has also done its best to give Paris a lead role in the NATO alliance at Britain’s expense, granting it one of two supreme NATO command positions – Allied Command Transformation (ACT). This, despite the fact that France has for decades been ambivalent and obstructionist over NATO, and is failing to carry its weight in Afghanistan