Prime Minister Gordon Brown addressed America in Washington in a speech urging American leadership towards global actions on economic and environmental fronts. He risked opposition at home to find persuasive words for his congressional audience
In its start, Prime Minister Brown avoided nuance. He expressed without equivocation a unity of purpose between two countries. This is the notion of a special relationship between Great Britain and the United States. Later he was to speak of a wider unity of values purpose between two continents, USA and Europe, ‘the most pro-American Europe in living memory …There is no old Europe, no new Europe, there is only your friend Europe.
A remarkable show of unity of values
One way in which the speech was remarkable was the manner in which it expressed shared values. This point was not weakened by qualifications, or acknowledgement of any possible sources of dispute. The admiration expressed omitted any reference to the revolution through which America escaped from its condition as a colony under British rule. The willingness to work for a global solution to the financial crisis avoided a hint of Mr Brown’s often expressed view at home of its origins in the United States. His called for an American lead for dealing with the grave dangers to the environment. He glossed over frustrations of what has been seen as the tardiness of recent American policy which at times appeared as a form of climate renewal to many in Europe.
A remarkable avoidance of political radicalism
In honouring the great leaders in America’s past, Mr Brown took care to balance references to democrats and republicans alike, citing Ronald Reagan several times as a kind of counterweight to his admiration of FDR and JFK. He even managed a similar strategy for acknowledging the positive contributions of the currently less-well appreciated George Bush. For this rhetoric to work, Prime Minister Brown had to avoid mention of a few inconvenient issues such as quaint acceptance in Europe in general, and in the United Kingdom in particular of a political philosophy that might frighten his hosts if mentioned in terms of its association with socialism and liberalism.
When courage and caution meet
The speech will have angered those who will have considered it a supine acceptance of America as superpower and leader of the free world and champion of democratic values.
A case can be made for this judgment of the speech. This view would also present Gordon Brown as a timid and cautious figure.
It is not so easy to build up the opposing case for Brown the self-appointed global hero. But it might just be possible to argue that it was a speech which combined caution with a stubborn kind of courage.
Brown would have been under no illusion that his words would infuriate a constituency back home. He will have considered this a necessary price to pay for making the points he really wanted to make. These required him to find words to nudge American opinion more towards avoiding strategies of protectionism and espousing more urgent strategic actions on a scale necessary to make a difference to the environmental challenges ahead.
There are no simple judgements to be made here.