Gordon Brown's first Washington visit as Britain's prime minister has prompted tea-leaf reading about the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S.-UK relationship. Momentarily diverting--and probably unavoidable--as the frenzy of speculation is, the real tests lie ahead. Actions ultimately trump semiotics in national security affairs.
Moreover, as contentious and important as Iraq is, it is a mistake to think that disagreements on that issue represent a fundamental change in the U.S.-UK relationship. Tony Blair and President George W. Bush disagreed on global warming, as will Mr. Brown and Mr. Bush, but in neither case does the disagreement reflect a tectonic shift.
In fact, whether the "special relationship" grows stronger or weaker lies entirely in British hands. Americans across the political spectrum are content to keep it as it is and has been essentially since the second world war. That does not mean that the two countries always agree, nor has it ever meant that Britain is a poodle following America's lead, self-flagellating Brits notwithstanding.
There are, however, more fundamental questions. Successive UK governments have taken Britain deeper and deeper into the European Union, all the while proclaiming that nothing fundamental about Britain's status was changing. Britain is not unique in this regard. Europeans advocating an "ever-closer union" continually reaffirm that they are not changing anything fundamental about their sovereign control over foreign and domestic policy.
This attitude has been widespread, but the re-emergence of a European "constitution"--under whatever name--has brought Britain to a clear decision point. The long, slow slide into the European porridge has had few clear transition points. In the aggregate, however, the magnitude of changes in the status of the EU's formerly Westphalian nation-state members can no longer be blinked away.
Thus, saying that the UK's "single most important bilateral relationship" is with America, but is not comparable with UK membership of the EU, is a clever but ultimately meaningless dodge. Drop the word "bilateral." What is Britain's most important "relationship?" Does Mr. Brown regard the EU as a "state under construction," as some EU supporters proclaim, or not?
The answers to these questions are what Washington really needs to know. What London needs to know is that its answer will have consequences.
For example, why does a "union" with a common foreign and security policy, and with the prospect of a real "foreign minister" have two permanent seats on the UN Security Council and often as many as three non-permanent seats out of a total of 15 council members? France and Britain may not relish the prospect of giving up their unique status, but what is it that makes them different--as members of the "Union"--from Luxembourg or Malta? One Union, one seat.
Mr. Brown cannot have it both ways (nor will President Nicolas Sarkozy), in part because many other EU members will not let the matter rest. Of course, the Security Council permanent seat itself is not the real issue--it is the question of whether Britain still has sovereignty over its foreign policy or whether it has simply taken its assigned place in the EU food chain.
Consider also the U.S.-UK intelligence relationship. Fundamental to that relationship is that pooled intelligence is not shared with others without mutual consent. Tension immediately arises in EU circles, however, when Britain advocates policies based on intelligence that other EU members do not have. How tempting it must already be for British diplomats to "very privately" reveal what they know to European colleagues. How does Mr. Brown feel about sharing U.S. intelligence with other Europeans?
Finally, there is Iran's nuclear weapons programme, which will prove in the long run more important for both countries than the current turmoil in Iraq. Here the U.S. has followed the EU lead in a failed diplomatic effort to dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons. If Mr. Bush decides that the only way to stop Iran is to use military force, where will Mr. Brown come down? Supporting the U.S. or allowing Iran to goose-step towards nuclear weapons?
I will wait for answers to these and other questions before I draw conclusions about "the special relationship" under Mr. Brown. But not forever.