He Just Called to Say He Loves Us: Barack Obama in London

I was in a meeting on the other side of London on Wednesday while President Barack Obama was speaking in Westminster Hall, so I didn’t hear what he said. But I could see him. My meeting was in a room that contained a flat-screen television with the sound turned off, permanently tuned to Sky News. Because I was sitting across from this flat-screen television, it was impossible not to glance at it every so often, just to see what was going on.
The first few times I looked up, the camera was focused on the utterly rapt faces of listening British MPs. The next few times I looked up, the camera was focused on the smiling faces of applauding British MPs. Then, for a good long while, the camera focused on the star-struck faces of British MPs, all desperate to shake the president’s hand.
Though I hadn’t heard anything the president had said, it wasn’t difficult to guess. “We are one civilisation” was the gist of it: from the Magna Carta to the Declaration of Independence to the Normandy Beaches to Nato – skipping a few minor episodes such as the American Revolution – America and Britain have long shared a common language, a common political culture and a common everything else. Here are some excerpts from the transcript: “Together, we have met great challenges… Our two nations know what it is to confront evil in the world… Enduring allies in the cause of a world that is more peaceful, prosperous, and just.”
It’s been said before. In fact, it’s been said before by just about every president of the United States from the middle of the 20th century onward: Ronald Reagan, Dwight D Eisenhower, John F Kennedy, Bill Clinton – any one of them could have given precisely the same speech. Yet the message clearly resonated among British MPs, and even among British journalists. Why?
For one, it flattered them, personally and politically. When Obama declares “we are one civilisation”, that implies that every single person standing in Westminster Hall inhabits the same powerful, glamorous world as the American president: every single one of them has been sprinkled with stardust by the man from the White House. It isn’t true, of course, but it’s nice to think it might be – just as it is nice when someone famous pretends to know who you are.
This particular version of “we are one civilisation” also worked because President Obama has an unfailing instinct for political rhetoric. This wasn’t his most moving or heartfelt speech, but it was very carefully calculated. The allusion to Adam Smith? That was a bone thrown to the free-marketers in the Tory Party – and the Republican Party back home – who worry that the American president is a closet socialist. The failure to mention Europe? That was a nice nod to those in the British establishment who would prefer to wish away the very notion of European foreign policy, even though a British woman, Catherine Ashton, currently runs around the world promoting it. Another line – “from Newton and Darwin to Edison and Einstein; from Alan Turing to Steve Jobs” – was a generous inclusion of Britain in a technological revolution the British ceased to lead a generation ago.
Cleverest of all, of course, was Obama’s declaration that Britain, like America, is a multi-cultural society that provides sanctuary for the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. “It’s possible for the sons and daughters of former colonies to sit here as members of this great Parliament,” he declared – and “for the grandson of a Kenyan who served as a cook in the British Army to stand before you as President of the United States.” David Cameron, George Osborne, Barack Obama – we are all upwardly mobile now! I wish I’d been in the room at that moment, just to feel the collective rapture.
And yet, in the end, “we are one civilisation” resonates because it is true – now more than ever. American and British business, American and British media, American and British consumers nowadays aren’t just close or similar, they are identical: they inhabit the same ecosystem, influencing and being influenced by one another in a million ways impossible to quantify. You can’t measure the fact that Tina Brown has edited both Tatler and The New Yorker, employing British and American writers interchangeably in both places. Or the fact that The King’s Speech filled more cinemas in America than in Britain. Or that American millionaires now buy English football teams, that quirky British newspaper stories can get millions of hits from American readers – and that any bestselling American novelist has a guaranteed book contract in Britain, too.
America’s stars are Britain’s stars and vice versa – in Hollywood and publishing as well as finance, media, public relations and sport. There have been British-born American Congressmen and American-born British MPs. America doesn’t do dog racing and Britain doesn’t do NASCAR, but, in almost every other sphere of business or pleasure, the two countries are joined at the hip. There is nothing mystical about it: our values are the same because our culture is the same. I speak here as one who holds both US and UK passports, and who feels precisely zero sense of divided loyalty.
Because of the language – because of the long-ago colonial relationship – the cultural, financial and intellectual relationship between our two countries is special, has always been special, and always will be special.
This has nothing to do with politics or foreign policy, and it doesn’t always translate into automatic American support for British ventures, or vice versa. Whatever he says in public, President Obama is privately none too thrilled about the Anglo-French decision to bombard Libya, and I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point he pulls the plug on it. But that won’t stop yet another British director from sweeping the Academy Awards, next year or the year after or the year after that.
It’s also true that American politicians almost never mention the British-American relationship; in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone in Washington use the expression “special relationship” at all. That’s partly because the US has special relationships with a number of countries. Mexico is one: there are special border issues, special trade issues, special immigration issues, any one of which might go badly wrong at any minute. China is another: so closely calibrated are the US and Chinese economies that the economic historian Niall Ferguson has described them as a single entity, “Chimerica”. Even the slightest adjustment in one country sets off alarm bells in the other.
The Anglo-American special relationship, by contrast, isn’t generally in crisis, and doesn’t generally require much diplomatic time or attention. So what’s to talk about?
Nothing – except that some people occasionally like to talk, even if only to reaffirm the obvious. Apparently, people who have been married to one another for 50 years still occasionally like to hear their spouse say: “I love you.” By the same token, the British political class seems occasionally to like to hear American presidents say: “We love you, too.”
Re-reading Obama’s speech, the underlying message appears to be nothing more than that: We love you, we’ll never leave you – and we couldn’t leave you even if we wanted to.
I guess that was enough to make everybody smile.

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