From an American perspective, President Barack Obama traveling to England to wish Queen Elizabeth a happy 90th birthday, play a little golf with Prime Minister David Cameron, contribute a somewhat condescending editorial piece on British foreign policy in the distinguished Daily Telegraph, and be on his merry way, is not terribly big news.
In Britain, however, it caused a bit of a row, because the issue on which our President chose to lecture his hosts happens to be sensitive at the moment. As per a pledge he made during last year’s parliamentary elections, which his Conservative Party won handily, Mr. Cameron’s government is putting the question of continued membership in the European Union to the voters.
A referendum will be held on June 23, and the contest is in full swing. The “Brexit” (British exit) side has divided both parties, with no fewer than seven cabinet ministers, eight if you count London mayor Boris Johnson (who sits in Mr. Cameron’s political cabinet), favoring exit. The backbenchers are about evenly divided between yes (stay in) and no (leave).
On the left, the Labour Party is giving tepid support to the stay side, but trade unionists have launched a strong campaign against the proposed United States-European Union Atlantic trade treaty that the Obama administration views as the logical complement of last year’s Pacific trade treaty.
It was, in fact, on the the trade issue that President Obama’s Telegraph opinion piece stung, by turning what might have been a friendly comment into a threat. In his Telegraph piece, the president observed that “the EU has helped spread British values and practices — democracy, the rule of law, open markets — across the continent and to its periphery.” It is the open markets idea that most interests him, as he made clear the following day at a press conference, when he doubled down on the theme, saying that were Britain out of the EU, it would find itself “at the back of the queue” where trade treaties are concerned. He had nothing more to say about democracy and the rule of law, however, notwithstanding that the main impetus of the “leave” campaign is the manifest inability of the EU to protect its members’ democracies and rules of law from barbarian invasions and the tyranny of unelected Eurocrats.
In response, Boris Johnson wrote in the Sun that the U.S. president was missing the point; British sovereignty is at issue, and with it British freedom. The EU is responsible for 60 percent of the legislation that passes through Westminster, the mayor pointed out. And the cause of freedom, forged in the anti-totalitarian conflicts of the past century, immortalized in Winston Churchill’s rhetoric, should not be forgotten so that Obama can indulge in anti-British sentiments while promoting one of his global governance schemes.
The present EU is a far cry from what the founding fathers of post-World War II European unity had in mind. Winston Churchill, who was favorably disposed toward the original idea, saw that a free trade zone among nations with at least comparable political systems would lessen the risks of a third continental (and world) war, while enhancing Western Europe’s ability to defend itself against Soviet imperialism.
A Churchill scholar (The Churchill Factor, written in 2014), Boris Johnson is acutely sensitive to the enduring legacy of the war-time British prime minister. Sovereignty and freedom are inextricably linked, and he does not take kindly to treaties and transnational arrangements that would limit Britain’s ability to act in its own interests, or that would send laws to England that the English did not choose through their own institutions.
Transnationalism and unelected international regimes are, however, right up the foreign policy alley of the Obama administration. Indeed, it seems apt that during the same week that Obama shouldered his way into a British election (after an obsequious stop over in Saudi Arabia to assure his friends there that any suggestions of complicity between them and 9/11 was surely an election-year trick by the Republicans), his secretary of state signed off on a United Nations Save the Earth treaty, without the advice and consent of the Senate as the Constitution requires. The administration also indicated it would buy Iranian “heavy water” as a way to help it comply with the terms of the nuclear treaty that was passed, also in disregard of the constitutional requirement for Senate approval, earlier this year.
The Obama administration, in fact, has been abusing executive power systematically; the establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, with the political and economic benefits to the Castro regime that this implies, are yet another example. Obama seems to never miss an opportunity to demonstrate that he wants to be loved by tyrants who hate America and to promote institutions, like the increasingly tyrannical European Union bureaucracy, that weaken our allies.
A simple commentary by the president about America’ s interest in a foreign issue should never be inappropriate. But in this case Obama forcefully took sides in the Euro-referendum matter, just as he injected himself into Israeli politics during their parliamentary elections a year ago.
Patriotic and jealous of his English freedom, the mayor of London evoked Churchill in his rebuttal to the American president. This may have been, rhetorically, a mistake, because he suggested that Obama’s anti-British animus — as Johnson perceived Obama’s advice — was due to the memory of the injury his Kenyan ancestors (on his father’s side) suffered at the hands of British colonialism, which Churchill defended.
In itself there is nothing wrong with mentioning Obama’s Kenyan roots; after all, people frequently refer to Churchill’s American roots (his mother), or for that matter to Johnson’s New York birth. Commentators in Britain jumped on the reference for revealing Johnson’s (and Churchill’s) racism. It reveals no such things, of course. Churchill was for maintaining the British Empire, and Johnson does not disagree with the fundamental reasons for this: it was in Britain’s interest and, quite possibly, in the interest of Britain’s imperial subjects as well. This may be debatable; it is not a symptom of racism.
But played up in the media, the false issue of Boris Johnson as some kind of English “birther” is, naturally, a distraction from the European Union issue which is before the voters in scarcely two months. If the “stay” side wins, and if the “neo-imperialism” of the Brusselocracy diminishes British freedom beyond the point of no-return, some responsibility will have to fall on those who arrogantly claimed to know better than the people concerned.
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