LONDON — Waiting to exhale.
That sums up the mood in Britain as Inauguration Day approaches. If the transition from President George W. Bush to President-elect Barack Obama has seemed to be happening in slow motion in the U.S. it has been equally frustrating to Britons. Whether they are of the right or the left, the British generally can't wait for the incoming president to make a fresh start.
Two hundred years after a painful separation — at least for the British — the fates of America and the United Kingdom are more deeply intertwined then ever. On the battlefield, Britain remains, in operational terms, the only real partner America has in Iraq. The umbrella of NATO can't hide the fact that in Afghanistan, Britain is the only one of the very few allies playing a full combat role. With lives on the line it is no wonder the British pay as much attention to American politics as their own.
But the connections go deeper. The NYLON axis — New York London — is critical in business. When Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson decided to let Lehman Brothers go bust, back in September, several thousand Lehman workers in London were left in the cold also. It wasn't the first time a crisis in an American institution hit hard in London's old financial district, the City. But it has left those who don't consider themselves masters of the universe with big questions about America.
On a cold, bright winter's day specialist furniture polisher Gary Phillips, who has spent the last year shining up the hundreds of mahogany doors and conference tables inside the Bank of England, munches a sandwich in a patch of sunshine across the street from the Bank and says, "Here's what I don't understand: Why do we rely so heavily on the United States? Why when they go into recession so do we?"
Phillips might find an answer if he hooked up with Alastair Green, an investment banker down at Canary Wharf, London's new financial district. Sitting outside a Starbuck's kiosk outside what used to be the headquarters of First Boston bank, an institution that disappeared in an earlier financial earthquake, the 50-year-old reflected on the end of an era.
"The age of Reagan-Thatcherism is over," he said, referring to the fact that for almost four decades the economic and foreign policy philosophy of America has found its echo in various British prime ministers.
Up to a point that was fine with investment banker Green, who said, "America has been a beacon of creativity and freedom."
But in recent years he and his colleagues have become alarmed at the way the U.S. has changed.
"People would like America to be like it used to be and sever connections to some of the maniacs that have been in charge recently," Green added.
Just how much people resent the way America has changed was clear when the National Intelligence Council in Washington published a report this fall on the state of the world in 2025. Its key finding: It is the end of the era of the U.S. as the world's sole superpower. If American newspapers reported the story at all it was confined to the inside pages. In Britain it was blared as a banner front page headline in both the liberal Guardian and the conservative Times. For days, op-ed columnists feasted on the story. Regardless of their political point of view, the columnists could barely suppress their glee at the thought of America being taken down a peg or three.
The message boards at newspapers were slick with gloating, "I mean how long did you think this hegemony would last? Forever? Great Powers are always overtaken by new ones, it happened to us, it is happening to you," a Brit named Mike posted at The Times.
Tristram Hunt's opening to an op-ed piece in the Observer newspaper was typical. "To wander through modern Los Angeles is to get a keen idea of Rome in 400AD, Venice at the end of its medieval glory or post-war London," Hunt wrote before describing L.A. as a gridlocked, crime-ridden nightmare.
But what people really want out of the U.S. at this moment is very unclear. There is a deep ambivalence about losing American leadership in the world. Susan Martin is well placed to balance views from both sides of the Atlantic. An American, educated at the University of California, Berkeley and Yale, she teaches security studies at Kings College London.
Martin acknowledges that people in Britain and across Europe tend to analyze American power differently than Americans. They also spend more time thinking about it. "They are very concerned about potential abuses of power. My impression of Americans", when they think about their nation's power "is simply to judge its effectiveness." In other words, if a policy is rough but it works that is what counts.
Her view is that most politically-aware people in Britain are in favor of continued American leadership in the world. "People are not saying, 'Get rid of America.' They are saying, 'Get rid of Bush.' Which is why there is so much euphoria about Obama."
For all the rhetoric of resentment and glee about the prospect of declining U.S. power, there is still an appetite for American leadership as long as it avoids what many here in Britain scorn as the doctrinaire arrogance of the last eight years.