Obama in London: All Hope and Glory, Signifying Nothing?

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President Barack Obama — in a speech before the British parliament that drew approving nods rather than the aerobic repeat ovations that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had elicited on Capitol Hill a day earlier — sought to reassure Britons that the transatlantic relationship remains “special”. More importantly, he wanted them to know that, together, the two countries still had an important global leadership role to play despite growing evidence of their waning influence in various trouble spots, and the rise of strategic competitors who don’t necessarily share Obama’s view that the United States and Britain embody the apotheosis of justice and good governance. (And no, we’re not only talking about the French.)

While the President highlighted Britain as the cradle of democracy and the rule of law, it was tempting to remember the observation by Salman Rushie, in the voice of one of his characters, that “the British don’t know their own history because so much of it happened overseas.” Or Gandhi’s tart comment, when asked — after centuries of British rule over his country — what he thought of Western civilization: “What do I think of Western civilization? I think it would be a very good idea.”

Indeed, President Obama, saluting American diversity, drew applause when noting this made it possible  “for the grandson of a Kenyan who served as a cook in the British Army to stand before you as President of the United States” — politely avoiding any reference to the claims, reported by the Times of London two years ago that Obama’s grandfather had, in fact, been tortured by the British for his support for Kenyan independence. And one might wonder, if he’d somehow been able to commune with them in his other ancestral home in the Irish hamlet of Moneygall earlier this week what Obama might have heard from his Irish forebears about the virtues of British rule. Not to harp on a theme or anything, but even Winston Churchill, whose phrase “wherever the bird of freedom chirps in the human heart” Obama invoked in closing,  would have preferred to throttle the birdsong of freedom emanating from Indian hearts before 1947.

Never mind all that unpleasantness, though. Obama’s key point: The “special relationship” is fine, unchanged, based not just on shared history, heritage, language and culture, but on “values and beliefs that have united our people through the ages”.

Great things had been achieved over the past decade in saving the global economy and moving to finish the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he noted. But great challenges lay ahead ranging from managing the global financial system to stopping terrorism and nuclear proliferation, fighting climate change and disease and ensuring happy outcomes in the Arab uprisings by investing in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt. The U.S. and British economies would have to expand their investments in science in order to retain their edge, help feed the world’s hungry, encourage economic development and women’s rights, and so on. If that sounds like a yadda-yadda collection of bromides worthy of a State of the Union address — well, that’s what it was.

Despite the rise of China and India and other new power centers, U.S.-British leadership remained essential. “We remain the greatest catalysts for global action,” he said. “We are the nations most willing to stand up for the values of tolerance and self-determination that lead to peace and dignity.”

President Obama reiterated the rationale that took both countries to war in Libya. Rejecting the “false choice between our interests and our ideals”, Obama said, “We embrace a broader responsibility. And while we cannot stop every injustice, there are circumstances that cut through our caution — when a leader is threatening to massacre his people, and the international community is calling for action. That is why we stopped a massacre in Libya. And we will not relent until the people of Libya are protected, and the shadow of tyranny is lifted.”

There was nothing new in the speech, but the real problems faced by the two countries in exercising the “broader commitment” can’t be addressed through a speech.

Obama called North Sudan and South Sudan to step back from the brink of war, for example, but with the world’s attention and resources concentrated in other crises, from Afghanistan to Libya, it’s not clear how an outbreak of conflict there might be halted.

He declared that “we stand united in our support for a secure Israel and a sovereign Palestine,” but has no substantial plan to make that a reality: Earlier in the day, Obama and Cameron had urged the Palestinians to refrain from seeking U.N. recognition of their claim to statehood on the 1967 lines, and urged them instead to resume negotiations with Israel. But in order for that case to be persuasive, Obama would have to demonstrate the potential of such negotiations to achieve an outcome the Palestinians would deem acceptable. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech on Capitol Hill on Tuesday simply reaffirmed a Palestinian belief  that they can’t achieve their goals by negotiating on Netanyahu’s terms.

The most pressing issue for the partnership’s “broader responsibility,” however, is Libya: It’s an open secret that London has been deeply unhappy about being forced to shoulder the lion’s share of responsibility for that operation by a U.S. Administration that prefers to “lead from behind” in this instance. It has been a sobering experience for a country accustomed to being cast in the role of plucky sidekick on America’s expeditionary military adventures of the past two decades suddenly finding itself forced to play the lead alongside the French, because U.S. commitments elsewhere and a limited appetite for the Libya mission.

As coalition forces pound Tripoli and French and British attack helicopters join the fray, bringing it closer to a ground war all the time, Libya is looking more and more like Kosovo — except that there, the goal wasn’t regime-change, and while Milosevic could after 78 days swallow the bitter pill of giving up what he called “the Serb Jerusalem” and still survive in power, that option is not available to Colonel Gaddafi; having been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, the only alternative for Gaddafi fighting to the death is a prison cell in The Hague.

So the battle ahead could be protracted, and more importantly, the fact that Libya turned from a popular rebellion into a civil war means that even once the regime is ousted, Libya is likely to require a robust long term peacekeeping mission a la Bosnia or Kosovo.

The U.S. is unlikely to want to be involved, but European powers retrenching their capability to project force abroad may not be too keen, either. As fiscal constraints and commitments elsewhere set limits on both countries’ ability to embrace the “broader responsibility” of which Obama spoke in a world changing fast and not always for the better, the “special relationship” will not be free of strains in the years ahead.

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