THE BLOG
07/26/2007 05:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

With Blair Gone, U.S.-U.K. Relations May be a Little Less 'Special'

Tony Blair's passionate, articulate support for George W. Bush's decision to invade and occupy Iraq earned him considerable gratitude from the war's American supporters and ringing denunciations from its British critics. Blair proved to be Bush's indispensable ally. Friends and foes alike of Bush policy are now wondering if Britain's new prime minister, Gordon Brown, will simply pick up where Blair left off or if some desire to distance himself from Bush may upend the two countries' "special relationship."

That Brown is drawn to American entrepreneurship and industriousness -- and that he likes to vacation in Cape Cod -- is well-documented. But Brown is unlikely to fill Blair's role as Bush's ever-reliable partner, and the reason has remarkably little to do with the U.S. president or the criticism Blair suffered from close association with him.

Much more important is that Blair was much more interested than Brown appears to be in making his mark as an international statesman. Early foreign-policy successes in the former Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland whetted Blair's appetite for a greater role for Britain (and himself) on the world stage. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks brought Blair quickly to Bush's side as the U.S. president declared his global war on terror.

As Blair steadily raised his international profile, Brown, the most prominent member of his government, resisted whatever urge he may have felt to comment broadly on foreign policy. That's not surprising given that Brown served as finance minister. But he's given no indication that as prime minister he intends to micromanage an activist foreign policy, and he has publicly promised to give parliament greater say in decisions to send British troops to war.

Instead, Brown intends to devote most of his personal time and attention to Britain's domestic challenges and has entrusted much of his government's foreign policy to his ministers. In the process, he has empowered several officials who have generated a few headaches in Washington. Newly appointed Foreign Secretary David Miliband is likely to back Britain away from close support for U.S. foreign policy on key issues -- managing conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians, in particular.

Foreign Office minister Mark Malloch Brown, whose portfolio includes Asia, Africa and the United Nations, antagonized some in the Bush administration last year with pointed public criticism of the war in Iraq. His comment during an interview this month that Britain and America will no longer be "joined at the hip" on foreign policy forced Miliband to publicly deny any cooling of relations between the two governments.

But Brown did not give these men their portfolios to signal some alienation from Washington. He has simply delegated foreign policy responsibilities to men he trusts in order to focus his personal attention on issues closer to home.

Still, there are several areas in which a new dynamic in British-U.S. relations will be most obvious. First, the gap between the U.S. and U.K. on climate change is virtually certain to grow. As Blair's environment secretary, Miliband used a speech in Washington in early June to politely suggest that Bush's acceptance of the need for targets to reduce CO2 emissions does not go far enough in addressing the threat of climate change. The Bush White House can expect more such pressure, however carefully worded.

Second, Brown is unlikely to promote Turkey's entry into the EU, a policy the White House favors, with his predecessor's considerable vigor. Blair was a staunch supporter of Turkish accession in large part because he viewed the European embrace of a liberal democratic Turkey as a bulwark against Islamic extremism and as a boost for British influence in the Middle East.

Brown may agree, but he is unlikely to allow this preference to create tensions with Nicolas Sarkozy, France's new president and a determined opponent of Turkey's bid. Better relations with France are the higher priority.

Third, Britain's new prime minister is keen to promote London as a global business center, an upgrade that threatens to come at New York's expense. Competition between the two cities to attract bases of finance and investment is sure to heat up.

The broader outlines of Brown's foreign policy remain unclear. Within Blair's government, he said very little on most major foreign-policy issues -- and virtually nothing on China or the various Middle East conflicts. In policy circles, he is known as something of an "economic determinist," one who believes that commitment to universal education, better health care and more jobs are the best hedges against future conflicts. In 10 years as Blair's chancellor of the Exchequer, he oversaw a 140 percent increase in foreign aid.

But as prime minister, it is the defense of British interests in present conflicts -- and those that might arise during his tenure -- that he will have to learn to manage. Britain's role in Iraq is unlikely to change much. Brown has given no indication that he will depart from Blair's plan to slowly and carefully withdraw British troops from Iraq. By the end of this year, there should be no more than 5,000 British troops there, in any case.

But his attitude toward possible U.S. military strikes on Iran's nuclear sites is less clear. Intent on safeguarding relations with Washington, he probably hopes that he's never forced to offer a firm opinion on them. Events may force his hand.

Brown's government will continue to talk up relations with America as vital to British interests. When he and Bush exchange their first photographed handshake, both men will be all smiles.

But whatever warmth Gordon Brown may feel toward America, he will be less extrovert than his predecessor in expressing it via strong public support for U.S. foreign policy. He has little interest in staking his premiership on influencing China's politics or remaking the Middle East, and will focus his energies instead on improving Britain's education and health care systems. That political choice, and not any personal desire to distance his government from the Bush administration, may make Britain's relations with the United States a little less "special."

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy. He is the author of the book "The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall." He can be reached via e-mail at research@eurasiagroup.net.