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World: British, U.S. Leaders Redefine The 'Special Relationship'

Gordon Brown (left) with President Bush on July 29 (epa) July 30, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is in the United States for talks today with U.S. President George W. Bush. It's Brown's first visit to Washington since becoming prime minister, and much attention is focused on how he will position Britain's relationship with the Bush administration. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten discussed the visit with "Financial Times" columnist Philip Stephens.

RFE/RL: Your column in the July 27 "Financial Times " centers on the paradox that Gordon Browns' foreign policy and his approach to the United States will both be similar to [former Prime Minister Tony] Blair's, but at the same time it's going to be different. Could you encapsulate some of the main points you're getting at in that relationship?

Philip Stephens: The strategic underpinning of the relationship, the shared concerns about security, the shared analysis about the threat to both the United States and to Europe, and the sharing of military technology and, indeed, military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan -- they're going to remain the same. So the basic strategic outlets remain the same. But the relationship, I think, will be different in two ways -- one fairly obviously: Brown is not Blair. Blair's very strong personal relationship with Bush was forged in the aftermath of [the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States]. It became very close; they went through Afghanistan and Iraq together. Brown, though he supported both those military operations, is clearly more distant from the president, and the president will be leaving office in 18 months, so there isn't going to be a personal close relationship.

The private message is Britain is not in the business of supporting military action against Iran, that it's committed to the diplomatic process that's now under way, that it doesn't see real urgency in the sense that something will have to be done in the next year or 18 months.

I think the second thing is the politics. In Britain, as in most of Europe, there's an anti-Bush and, to a degree, anti-American mood. So domestic politics in Britain, as elsewhere in Europe, point to politicians keeping a certain distance from the Bush administration. So while Gordon Brown will be keen to say the relationship is strong, he'll also be saying things about multilateralism; the need to deploy soft power like aid, trade, and economic development as well as military power; and, if you like, differentiate himself somewhat from Tony Blair.

RFE/RL: But he can't go too far since he was in that cabinet, he did go along with those decisions, and was a real anchor for so many years in Blair's administration. So he really can't divorce himself from that legacy.

Stephens: No, I don't think he can divorce himself from that legacy, but I think what he can do is signal that, if you like, the future may be different from the past. I was talking to one of his close friends and I said, "Tell me about Gordon Brown's foreign policy," and this friend replied: "No more wars." Now you could say, well, actually there aren't many people in Washington who are enthusiastic about fighting more wars given the problems the U.S. has in Iraq. I think it is a difficult balancing act, but I think Brown wants to both say [that] the fundamentals of the alliance are strong -- and, indeed, he'll be looking forward, I think, to a new administration in that respect as well -- and, at the same time, signal that the closeness of the relationship with Bush isn't there anymore and that Britain isn't going to be engaged in any more military adventures with the United States while he is in No. 10.

RFE/RL: So you can expect him to let Bush know that if he decides to do something in Iran, Britain will not necessarily go along?

Stephens: Yes, I think that although publicly Brown and David Miliband, the foreign secretary, are careful to say, look, we are not going to rule out any options, the private message is Britain is not in the business of supporting military action against Iran, that it's committed to the diplomatic process that's now under way, that it doesn't see real urgency in the sense that something will have to be done in the next year or 18 months if Iran doesn't step back from its nuclear program. It clearly thinks that Iran's nuclear program is a big problem, as for example does France, but there's no appetite at all for military action.

RFE/RL: In terms of Iraq, is Britain getting ready to pull out its troops from there?

Stephens: Britain is preparing to pull out of Iraq. This had begun under Tony Blair, so this isn't a great shift in policy. We only have now about 5,000 troops or so in southern Iraq, based in Basra. I think the view of the British military is that there's not much more for the British troops to do. They will be moving back fairly shortly into Basra Air Base, and the view is, I think, that some time next year they'll be pulled out.

British forces on patrol in Al-Basrah (epa file photo)

But I think Gordon Brown will be careful not to be precipitate given the debate that it's now raging in Washington about the withdrawal of U.S. troops. I don't think we'll see Gordon Brown preempting that, saying look I'm going to pull out British troops in the next three or two months."

RFE/RL: In terms of policy toward Russia, Bush and Brown seem to be on the same page.

Stephens: I think on quite a lot of issues like Russia they are on the same page. I think we may begin to see some distinction between the policy toward the Middle East and the now defunct peace process. I think Brown will certainly be pressing the president to reengage himself and to make sure that actually creates some momentum. But I think that's not different from Blair because Blair, at every meeting he had with the U.S. president, underlined the importance of getting the Israelis and Palestinians talking again.

RFE/RL: Now lastly Bush is famous for having this personal or trying to have this personal approach to politics and to politicians. Much is being made of the fact that Brown is this sort of dour personality. On the personal-chemistry level, what can we expect?

Stephens: I think they are rather different people. I mean Brown is, in a way, an intellectual. He's someone who devours books and academic treatises and is interested in the abstract arguments as well as the practical problems that the government faces. So, in that sense, I think they are different. [Brown] is a fairly introverted character, unlike Blair. Blair naturally got on with most people, including the president. So I don't think there will the warmth in the relationship that we've seen before. But I think on this occasion Brown will go out of his way to emphasize the strength of the relationship and to avoid headlines saying "the special relationship is over."

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