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How to Read the British State Visit

Interviewee: Charles A. Kupchan, Whitney Shepardson Senior Fellow, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
March 12, 2012

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As British Prime Minister David Cameron arrives in Washington for a two-day state visit starting March 13, Charles A. Kupchan, CFR's Europe expert, says the trip is unlikely to produce any big news, but Afghanistan, Syria, and Iran will crowd the discussions. On Afghanistan, Kupchan says "there is pressure across the board for drawing troops down sooner rather than later." The meetings come at a time of a changing U.S.-UK relationship, says Kupchan: "The United States still sees Britain as a go-to partner, but at a time when American priorities are shifting to the Middle East and to East Asia, Europe and the UK in particular matter less." At the same time, Kupchan adds, London has isolated itself from the eurozone by refusing to sign on to the fiscal pact, raising long-term questions over Britain's ability to continue to be a significant global player.

Do you expect anything special from this visit, besides Obama taking Cameron to a NCAA playoff basketball game in Dayton, Ohio, on Tuesday?

I'm sure Cameron wants to see the hinterland and it doesn't hurt for Obama to stop in a major swing state in the Midwest. But I don't think this visit is going to produce any bombshells, any big news. It's one in which there are a lot of important strategic issues on the docket with Afghanistan, Iran, and Syria topping the list.

I also expect that Obama and Cameron will discuss the ongoing fiscal crisis in Europe, although to some extent, the UK has opted out of being a player in that game by refusing to sign on to the fiscal pact and keeping its distance from the eurozone.

Cameron himself has been a great proponent of austerity, right?

Yes. Like other European leaders, he favors austerity rather than stimulus. This has been an issue that has divided Obama from most European leaders for the last three years, with Obama believing that some level of stimulus is key to climbing out of the recession, whereas Europeans, particularly on the right--and Cameron does hail from the right--are more prone to adhere to fiscal austerity as a way to restore solvency and growth.

Is Cameron going to meet with any of the Republican candidates?

With the situation so fluid and with so much on the agenda, Cameron will probably focus his attention on the U.S. government.

I would think one of the more important topics will be the G8 meeting scheduled for May 18-19 at Camp David. What's uncertain right now is whether newly elected Russian President Vladimir Putin will attend.

By the time we get to the G8 Summit, the dust will, to some extent, have settled. A good bit of Putin's harsh rhetoric over the last several months has been related to the election campaign in Russia, and from the very beginning, Putin has relied upon a readiness to butt heads with Washington as a way of gaining domestic popularity. That's not going to change.

Putin will continue to be a tough customer on European missile defense, on Iran, perhaps on Syria, but the particularly pronounced edge to his rhetoric will diminish. The "reset" in relations between Washington and Moscow proceeded despite Putin's presence in the government as the prime minister. I don't see the Russian election as a watershed moment. The reset will continue, and I expect more of the same rather than some new period of confrontation between Russia and the United States or Russia and Europe.

Russians are under attack by the Arab world as well as from the United States and other Western countries for not supporting the recent Security Council resolution calling for the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down. Will Putin change his stance on that issue?

There's a certain amount of a buyer's remorse in Moscow and Beijing today because the decision by those countries to veto the UN resolution has not just left China and Russia diplomatically isolated, but it has also diminished their standing in the court of world opinion. [It] has left the Russian and Chinese governments on the wrong side in this issue and appearing to be giving cover to a Syrian regime that is committing atrocities against its own population.

[O]n Syria and on Iran, there is not a great deal of daylight between Obama and Cameron.

Moscow and Beijing miscalculated, and both governments were viewing the situation in Syria through the lens of Libya, where both governments felt that NATO overstepped its bounds and turned a mission authorized to focus on humanitarian protection into a mission focused on regime change. They did not want to let the same thing happen in Syria. But as a consequence, they have isolated themselves, and I expect a change in their position in the coming weeks and in their readiness to support international efforts to stop or at least to alleviate the bloodshed, and to get humanitarian assistance to the opposition. There will be a red line, and that red line will entail staying away from resolutions that could lead to intervention and forcible regime change, but short of that, I am beginning to see the signs of a new tact in Russia and China.

The British were pretty strong on Syria too?

Yes; on Syria and on Iran, there is not a great deal of daylight between Obama and Cameron. On Syria, both leaders see the need to do more, but also see the dangers of direct Western military involvement. And on Iran, both leaders understand the gravity of the crisis and the consequences of an Iranian nuclear capability and are determined to give diplomacy a fighting chance, if not to resolve the crisis, at least to buy time and avert the rush toward military action.

On Iran, it's rather interesting because of the comments that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made recently that seemed to praise Obama for his comments about how diplomacy could work.

The mere fact that Tehran has warmed up to the idea of negotiations suggests that there is anxiety in the government. There is no question that the sanctions are hurting, and the Iranians are beginning to see that the West is posing a united front and that they may in fact face a military strike from Israel, from the United States, or from some larger coalition if there is no diplomatic movement. Pragmatism and a sober assessment of how isolated Iran is are pushing the country to the negotiating table.

On economic issues, is Europe now over the worst, or is it still in the middle of the worst?

For the first time in three years, one can say that Europe has passed through the bottom of the crisis and that the clouds are starting to lift. The turning point came in late 2011, and several developments contributed to the turnaround. German Chancellor Angela Merkel woke up and began to stress to Germans the gravity of the crisis, arguing justifiably that it was arguably the worst challenge to the EU since World War II. The European Central Bank began to lend money at favorable rates to European banks, which were then able to buy sovereign debt. The EU succeeded in formulating a fiscal pact to give greater oversight to the eurozone, and Mario Monti replaced Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, giving Italy a new wind in the sails and placing on the European scene an economist that's highly regarded and has helped resolve the crises.

That's why you are seeing the markets show greater confidence and why, at least for now, Europe seems out of the woods. But there are still many, many fragile months ahead, and so I wouldn't say the crisis is over; I would say that finally Europe seems to be on safer ground, and that's critical to buying time for countries to begin to get their houses in order. The big question for Greece in particular is whether austerity is going to cause a slowdown in their economy of such scope that they are not able to climb out of debt.

How is Britain's economy doing?

Britain is in the midst of suffering through the cuts that the Cameron government has imposed, and it's leading to a profound level of hardship. It's too soon to tell if and when the UK is going to emerge from the other end of the tunnel. But thus far, the UK is not one of those countries that the markets have worried about or have gone after. It is still primarily the Greeks, the Spaniards, the Irish, the Portuguese that are on the worry list.

Britain is in the midst of suffering through the cuts that the Cameron government has imposed, and it's leading to a profound level of hardship.

The bigger issue for the UK on that front is the longer term implications of Cameron's decision to isolate the UK from Europe. Despite the meeting this week between Cameron and Obama, there's no question that the U.S.-UK relationship, although still special, is not what it used to be. The United States still sees Britain as a go-to partner, but at a time when American priorities are shifting to the Middle East and to East Asia, Europe and the UK in particular matter less. One would have expected Britain to respond to that shift in the world by cozying up to Europe, but London has done the opposite--step away from the fiscal pact and isolate itself from Europe. That raises longer-term questions, especially amid austerity and cuts to the defense budget, about Britain's ability to continue to be a significant global player as time moves forward.

By not signing on to the fiscal pact, have the British alienated themselves from countries like Germany and France?

There are plenty of EU members that are not in the eurozone, and that potentially would form a kind of non-eurozone interest group or non-eurozone caucus within the EU, but Britain went one step further and really isolated itself. In that sense, it really diminishes Britain's voice as a player in the EU, and certainly has alienated French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Merkel and other key leaders.

Are the British pleased with the rate of withdrawal from Afghanistan, or would they like it to be even faster?

One of the key topics on the agenda will be the pace and scope of withdrawal from Afghanistan. There's a NATO summit upcoming in Chicago after the G8 where the NATO members will set the schedule and the mission for Afghanistan moving forward.

My sense is that the game is changing a bit and the schedule is moving up, and that will be the case especially because the British just lost a good number of soldiers in Afghanistan and there is pressure across the board for drawing troops down sooner rather than later. I think Obama and Cameron will be discussing: Should we move up the schedule? Should we be reducing the size of the footprint, that is to say, moving more quickly toward training and a support role and wrapping up the counterinsurgency role; and how can we ensure that NATO's departure occurs in an ordered way, rather than seeing individual countries start heading for the exits on their own schedules?

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