Mitt Romney’s big London adventurePosted: 27/07/2012
By Dr Dana Allin, Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy and Transatlantic Affairs; Editor of Survival
Mitt Romney’s now infamous gaffes during a day in London, awkward though they have been, are not the stuff of huge diplomatic significance. His problem is that the whole trip – with stops in Israel and Poland as well as London – was premised on the alleged problem of the incumbent president’s incompetence and indifference in nurturing important alliances. As New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait puts it, the UK visit ‘was supposed to have been a restoration of the “special relationship,” a goal that nestled comfortably into the general right-wing accusation that Obama spits in the faces of our friends even as he comforts our enemies.’
Instead, Romney ran into the buzz-saw of the British press, which Chait describes as ‘an outrage-generating machine the likes of which we American reporters can only gaze upon with awe’. As an American in London, I know what he’s talking about. In September 2009, a BBC producer called me at home asking if I could go on camera to talk about President Barack Obama’s ‘snub’, in New York the previous day, to then UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
I was puzzled, since I had just finished reading the online editions of major American newspapers. No mention of a snub. Then I walked to my local newsagent and entered an alternative universe of blaring headlines in which the White House’s failure to arrange a bilateral meeting with Brown during Obama’s trip to the UN General Assembly constituted yet more evidence of a crisis in the ‘special relationship’. This was after Obama returned a bust of Winston Churchill to the British embassy (to replace it with one of Abraham Lincoln) and other incidents.
When I did the BBC interview, I tried to make the case that the UK press and politicians, not to mention the White House, really had more important things to worry about. I have long argued that the fetish of a ‘special relationship’ was frivolous and demeaning to UK elites, and seriously distorted their assessments of Britain’s strategic situation and choices. (I’m not alone in this; a House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee report on UK–US relations, to which I presented evidence, expresses more or less the same conclusion.)
More broadly, Mitt Romney’s troubles this week bring to mind the famous, perhaps apocryphal, question that Napoleon posed about a particular general who was recommended to him. ‘Is he lucky?’ Napoleon is supposed to have asked.
When future historians assess the causes and consequences of the 2012 presidential election result, they will not dwell on the television interview that the Republican candidate gave on the eve of the London Olympics. Still, a day that started with the Tory UK Prime Minister’s swipe suggesting it was much easier to arrange an Olympics in the relative emptiness of Utah, and ended with the Tory London Mayor mocking the American visitor in front of 60,000 cheering people assembled in Hyde Park, does not count as one of Mitt Romney’s lucky days.