British Prime Minister David Cameron this week will receive all the pomp of an Official State Dinner in Washington, D.C., and the honor of traveling with President Barack Obama on Air Force One to Dayton, Ohio, where the two leaders will watch an NCAA opening-round college basketball game. In advance, President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron also set out their vision for the future of the special relationship in a joint Washington Post op-ed, arguing that this is a partnership based on heart, history, traditions, and shared values.
As a Brit it is reassuring to know the U.S. president appreciates the contributions of my country’s armed forces to the mission in Afghanistan, alongside our longstanding support for the United States in the international arena. As a progressive, however, I doubt very much the values of Prime Minster Cameron’s conservative government and those of the Obama administration are either very much shared or the likely foundation for a common vision or shared project with my country or much of Europe.
Why? Because a new transnational politics is taking shape in Europe, offering competing visions for the future of the Eurozone alongside new transnational political alliances. Over the coming 18 months, this shift will set the stage for a new era of transatlantic relations, one shaped by shared progressive values and common political projects, making alliances with conservative leaders on the margins of Europe less relevant than ever before.
Indeed, across the Atlantic this week, a parallel meeting of leaders from Europe’s major progressive parties is also taking place in Paris. Chaired by Francois Hollande, the Socialist Party candidate for the French presidency, the meeting will launch the "Paris Declaration" setting out a new progressive vision for Europe. The gathering is a response to the political coalition of conservatives built by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to defend the floundering incumbent French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The conservative coalition counts David Cameron as one of its members and is held together by its support for austerity policies.
This clash of visions in Europe is, in principle, something President Obama cares about. His administration repeatedly expresses frustration with how Europe’s conservative-led governments have responded to the Eurozone crisis. Evidence suggests that the government austerity programs initiated by these conservative governments are driving Europe back into recession, which could slow the current U.S. economic recovery.
At home President Obama favors a more nuanced approach to the current economic challenges, seeking to combine short-term investments to create jobs and rekindle sustained economic growth with a medium-term agenda to reform government spending. This is precisely the approach that Europe’s progressives are now arguing for—and a nod of support from the White House may well help their cause.
Some will claim this is too much to expect of President Obama, but it has happened before. When former Prime Minister Tony Blair visited President Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s while he was leader of the British progressive opposition, President Clinton took the unprecedented move of turning a photo-op into a virtual press conference. So began a truly special relationship, built on a political vision shared by the two leaders that would later provide the foundation for an unprecedented era of transatlantic cooperation.
The so-called Third Way movement—which brought President Clinton and Prime Minister Blair together with other like-minded leaders such as German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, and Dutch Prime Minister Wik Kok—and the progressive governance dialogues they led offered a political antidote to the conservative Reagan-Thatcher axis of the 1980s, and heralded in an unprecedented period of economic growth and democratization. During the Clinton-Blair years, the United Kingdom experienced record-high employment, with 2.8 million more people in work by 2007 than there were in 1998, and 500,000 fewer children in income poverty. In the United States 22.7 million new jobs were created, unemployment dropped to the lowest levels in 30 years, and the economy grew by 35 percent overall.
The politics of such a progressive alliance are more complicated now than they were at the close of the 20th century. Then 13 out of 15 member states of the European Union were governed by progressive parties. Today 23 of the 27 are led by conservatives. And, of course, Europe is a less significant player than it once was given the growing economic clout of the leading developing nations of the world, among them China, India, and Brazil.
Yet with elections in France and Romania this year, and in Germany and Italy in 2013, that picture could soon change. During a potential second term for President Obama, Europe could well be marching to a different, more progressive tune, one much closer to the president’s liking. And a focused transatlantic agenda for shared progressive growth and prosperity could still be a major force for good in the world.
Amid the excitement and media frenzy of this week’s visit, then, it is still probably time to reflect on whether the special relationship needs a reset.
Matt Browne is a Visiting Fellow at the Center for American Progress, working on building transatlantic progressive networks and policy issues.