President Barack Obama has arrived in Britain at a time when our country is experiencing an unusual mixture of happiness and anxiety. On one level, Obama is witnessing a people who are in surprisingly good spirits. The royal wedding revealed that ties of national unity are not nearly so frayed as we imagined them to be: The Queen is enjoying an Indian summer of popularity and Obama paid her a lovely tribute. “We’re all proud of her,” he said.
Revived confidence in the monarchy goes hand in hand with a refreshingly stoical public mood in the face of economic austerity. Despite an embarrassing degree of tension between ministers, the central aim of the coalition’s economic policy — the need to reduce the deficit — is shared by Britons of widely differing political views. David Cameron cuts a convincing figure as prime minister even when his PR machine lets him down. His authority was boosted by the recent elections. The bitterness of metropolitan “progressives,” stranded without a convincing political leader, has not infected the Labour heartlands; witness their affirmation of our traditional voting system.
But Obama is not interested in British domestic politics. What goes through his mind when he thinks about us? Henry Kissinger says the administration is warming toward the U.K., which implies that Obama is moderating his resentment of our colonial past. If so, that is just as well, since Britain and America have been thrown together by the “Arab Spring.” Alas, this opportunity for cooperation threatens good relations just as much as it reinforces them. Obama’s plan to return Israel to its 1967 borders will infuriate British friends of Israel; his policy toward the Arab world is inconsistent, and Downing Street knows it. Britain, meanwhile, claims to have a clear idea of what it wants to achieve in Libya, but has eviscerated its armed forces. That does not impress the Pentagon.
But our two nations face threats of such seriousness that they can leave no room for complacency. It is to these that Cameron and Obama must devote all their energies.
The Telegraph, London (May 27)