President Obama’s address to Britain’s Parliament in historic Westminster Hall was of a piece with many of his speeches: a mixture of soaring generalities and devils in the details, with some dubious history thrown in.
The President’s entire visit to Britain has delivered a mixed message. Both leaders have evidently been told that they should downplay the fact that a Special Relationship exists between the U.S. and Britain and focus instead on what is now supposedly an “essential” relationship. But both the President and the Prime Minister have—rightly—ignored these promptings and spoken repeatedly of the Special Relationship. But while using the term is good, making it an enduring reality would be much better.
The proper test of the success of the state visit is whether it leads to anything more than fine rhetoric. The President’s speech today suggests that it will not. His testimony to the history of the Anglo–American alliance and the shared political inheritance of freedom will please Americans but may not go down quite as well in Britain. Contrary to the President, it has not simply been smooth sailing between the U.S. and Britain since British troops burned the White House in the War of 1812. There was the Suez Crisis of 1956, for instance.
And while the President’s allusion to Winston Churchill’s great “fight them on the beaches” speech was clever, quite a few Britons remember that, contrary to the President’s claim that “we fought them on the beaches,” the U.S. wasn’t in the war when that speech was given and that Britain was standing entirely alone. Yes, the U.S. later redeemed that error on the beaches of Normandy, but many Britons resent what they see as an American tendency to assume that we were allies all the way through and that our war experiences were basically similar.
The point of all this is that alliances take work. If you make mistakes, like the shared British and American errors during the Suez Crisis or the U.S.’s self-defeating isolationism of the 1930s, you can ruin great relationships. What this Administration has not done is to take any of the “difficult choices” that are necessary to sustain and build on our relationship today. In public, the visit is a love-in. But behind the scenes, the President’s visit has been marked by disputes over the damaging impact of Britain’s defense cuts and the U.S.’s failure of leadership in Libya.
Instead of addressing these concerns, the President resorted to his favorite rhetorical strategy. By now, the script is so well known that his speechwriters could be brought up on charges of plagiarism. They begin with well-sounding principles, making sure to mention someone (this time, it was Adam Smith) who can plausibly be called a classical liberal. They speak eloquently about free enterprise for a paragraph. They establish that everyone is agreed that the free market is economically and morally superior to socialism. They reject false choices and call for hard decisions.
Then come the devils in the details: “global rules of the road,” action on “the dangers of carbon pollution,” government-provided health care, unemployment insurance, a “dignified retirement,” more “investments” in “people and infrastructure.” The President always advances these ideas as though they are an inevitable outcome of history and thus barely qualify as choices at all. But put that all together and you have a program that fails to make even the easiest choices in that it proposes to spend more money on just about everything except defense. It is a plan for the enormous expansion of government, a world that would be absolutely unrecognizable to Adam Smith.
Nor would Smith, for whom defense was more important than opulence, be enthusiastic about the President’s desire to cut U.S. defense spending, his praise for a new NATO strategic concept that is not backed up by meaningful resources, or that most predictable of the President’s pet rocks, “a world without nuclear weapons”—code for allowing the U.S. nuclear arsenal to atrophy while kicking the can down the road on Iran and North Korea.
Except for its opening, which was specific to Britain, this was a speech that the President could have given anywhere. Indeed, it is the speech he has given everywhere. Like the rest of his visit, it was long on rhetoric (most of it recycled from previous efforts) and very short on substance—except insofar as it was another opportunity to claim that everything he wants to achieve is the necessary conclusion of Anglo–American history. This makes for a fine-sounding speech for those who share his beliefs. But for those who do not, it sounds less a serious contribution to restoring an alliance that his Administration has repeatedly denigrated and more like a campaign speech.