Expectations for Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s address to the joint meeting of Congress this morning were low. His visit so far has been devoid of highlights. His joint press conference with Obama on Tuesday was canceled, supposedly because of the weather, which was a snub Tony Blair never endured.
At bottom, the reality is that Brown is desperately unpopular in Britain, and must simply be grateful if any of Obama’s popularity rubs off on him. Because he wants a lot but can deliver little, no one in the Administration, or out of it, has been eager to do him any favors, or even pay him much mind. That in itself, think what one will about Brown himself, is a sad commentary on Britain’s state today.
His address to Congress needed to be something spectacular. It was not: it was the speech he was expected to give. His repeated compliments to Obama went well beyond the norm, and pointed to the fact that this visit has as much to do with his domestic standing in Britain as to his response to the global financial crash.
On the Special Relationship itself, which he rightly described as an unbreakable friendship based on shared history and values, he was notably more firm than Obama has been. His tribute to the American and British troops fighting side by side in Iraq and Afghanistan was heartfelt, and in stark contrast to Obama’s refusal to acknowledge America’s allies or even to mention the war in Iraq. His mention of the American military cemeteries that mark Europe, and the American dead that feature in British commemorations, was similarly gracious.
But apart from supporting the two state solution in the Middle East peace process, and condemning Iran’s nuclear program, his words in the realm of security were clear and heartening, but also devoid of specifics. Particularly notable by its absence was any mention of an increased British troop contribution in Afghanistan, or any support for encouraging the NATO allies to increase their contributions.
But of course this speech was tipped to focus mainly on Brown’s plans for a ‘Global New Deal.’ And that it did. It is not enough for the U.S. and Britain to pass enormous stimulus measures. Every nation in the world, he proclaimed, must commit to doing the same, as well as to global banking regulations, coordinated reductions of interest rates, outlawing tax havens, a new drive against protectionism, and, inevitably, to creating millions of ‘green jobs.’ The guiding star of the recovery, he proclaimed, must be to “set free the drive of our entrepreneurs.”
Exactly. But the only one of his recommendations that fit that prescription was his rejection of protectionism. What Brown didn’t explain was how entrepreneurs would be set free by the imposition of global banking regulations. Or why entrepreneurs should welcome governments flooding the financial markets with new debt when lending is already in short supply. Or why, if these mythical green jobs are so profitable, it takes taxes and government subsidies to will them into existence. Or why tax havens – which is just another word for any place that has lower taxes than Europe – should not be popular with entrepreneurs. Or, ultimately, why Congress should cede the sovereignty of the United States to the kind of unelected international economic bureaucracy that he envisions.
The underlying error in Brown’s speech is a serious one. According to him, global markets must be “shaped” to meet the people’s needs. But that is what markets exist to do: by responding to supply and demand, they offer a far more subtle way of discovering and responding to these needs than any politicized ‘shaping’ process can afford. His argument that markets cannot be values free evades the point. The essential value on which markets are based is the value of individual liberty under law. Controlling the means of life by ‘shaping’ markets means controlling that liberty by regulating not processes, but outcomes. And that is not a control compatible with the sovereign will of the American people, with entrepreneurial drive, or with economic recovery.
The applause Brown received was warm, and rightly so: it is a matter of courtesy to the Prime Minister of a great ally. But the response he should receive from Congress and the Administration on his financial proposals should be about as chilly as his cancelled press conference would have been.