A morning at the White House

A frisson of expectation sweeps the crowd as the tannoy crackles to life and the announcer declares “Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States.” The honour guard comes to attention, the band strikes up Hail to the Chief and the most powerful leader in the world emerges. And when moments later, a black SUV sweeps round the drive and stops in front of the White House to deposit Justin Trudeau, the new Canadian Prime Minister… well, perhaps only a visit from the Queen herself would top Washington DC’s current level of excitement.

This was the scene on the South Lawn of the White House as President Barack Obama welcomed his Canadian counterpart to the capital of the United States yesterday. Clutching my ticket, I had joined the great and good of Washington in a line that stretched halfway round the block, excited to be part of the occasion. Three ID and security checks later and I was in.

First impressions – the White House is a lot bigger than on TV. The gardens are beautiful. And there’s a children’s play area next to the Oval Office… America also does some good pageantry. Before the ceremony started, two bands marched around (one in Revolutionary War regalia), military personnel at attention lined the drive and the flags of all 50 states were carried up the steps.

After the two leaders mounted the podium the national anthems rang out, with ‘O Canada’ accompanied by a nineteen gun salute. I half expected a military fly-past during ‘Star Spangled Banner,’ such was the atmosphere. What with the sun shining down and the temperature nudging 25 degrees, it felt more like 4th July celebrations than a formal state occasion. Such was the joviality babies were even kissed (almost).

However, underneath all the pomp there was a serious message. The last state visit by a Canadian Prime Minister to his southern neighbour was nineteen years ago. Relations in the interim have been patchy, particularly over the Keystone XL pipeline. However, Trudeau’s election marked a dramatic change in Canadian environmental policies, demonstrated by strong support for the Paris climate agreement. An invitation to Washington was perhaps inevitable, especially with Trudeau seeming to position himself as Obama’s heir on the international stage.

Indeed in their remarks both leaders focused on their close and enduring relationships between their countries, respectively calling themselves “steadfast allies and the closest of friends” who, as “prosperous, free, diverse societies… have shaped history together.” They also noted deep cross-border ties, ranging from communities straddling the line to the large number of citizens living and working in the other country. And a moment of levity was struck as they bickered over the United States and Canada’s “very real differences”, including on who is better at ice hockey – a serious debate in this part of the world.

As I watched Obama and Trudeau celebrate this common heritage, culture and values, it reminded me of the deep and enduring links enjoyed by the English-speaking nations of the world (not forgetting Canada’s bilingualism). With our current focus on EU membership, these links are sometimes forgotten about in the UK, but the Anglosphere has played a central role in defining the world we live in today. It is a bond that London, Ottawa, Washington, D.C., Canberra and Wellington should work hard to ensure lasts well into this century and beyond.

* Alex Paul Shantz is a former member of the Liberal Democrats who now lives in Iowa, where he most recently was a field organizer for New Jersey Senator Cory Booker’s presidential campaign. Originally from London, he previously worked in public policy in Washington, DC for the Atlantic Council, a foreign affairs think tank.

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  • Lorenzo Cherin 11th Mar '16 - 12:28pm

    This is a very good read.I have in – laws there, in the USA, not Washington, and follow issues closely.I heartily ,strongly agree with your sentiment.As Liberal Democrats , we have more in common with the actuality of the constitutions and democracies of the USA and Canada , than we do with the structure and methodology of the EU. As a party I have always seen a gap between the views of members and our actual policy on European matters , and the way it is conveyed by the leadership.We are , and should be, constructive critics.

    In the Commonwealth we have a strong bond , too , not just in Canada and the countries in the vanguard of it.But human rights and womens issues and LGBT policy in some countries we share a history with, means we need to be stronger critics too.

    The direction of travel under Obama, and now Trudeau , is broadly , welcome.But we need to be critical friends even there.We might face President Trump ?!!

  • Matt (Bristol) 11th Mar '16 - 1:58pm

    Alex, where is Ireland – our fellow EU member – in your list? Do we not have common history and constitutional similarity with them?

    I would say that constitutionally we have more in common with Canada, Ireland, Australia, and even India – countries with a non-executive head of state – than we have with the US.

    Viewed in that perspective, the US has more in common with, say, South Africa (another largely Anglophone nation you don’t mention) and France.

    Yes, we have shared history with the US – and a shared language too. But – unlike the most hysterical elements of those parties that give most strength to the ‘Leave the EU’ campaign, let’s not get all Joseph Chamberlain and sentimental over this; Looking at the Republican primaries, I am reminded constantly of the cultural differences also.

    ‘History’ is subjective – We have been working in very close partnership with the other EU nations since the 70s – is that not a shared history?

  • Paul Murray 11th Mar '16 - 2:12pm

    I lived in the USA for 4 years and concluded that I had little in common with most Americans. We might speak the same language but that’s about it. Culturally I felt much more affinity with the Mexicans. Maybe it’s because I’m Irish, not English. I did become (and remain) a big fan of baseball but that’s very popular in Central America and Cuba too.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 11th Mar '16 - 2:48pm

    Paul Murray

    What a strange comment.Who are most Americans?Did you meet them?Were you a roving ambassador ? Did you meet and get to know people of all races , genders, religions, political parties,socio economic groups , areas of work , professions ,cultural interests?!If you had little in common with nearly three hundred and fifty million people might one suggest that says a lot about you , perhaps , not least your ability to meet so many people !

    There was a terrific series on American television once , called the Naked City . It was set in New York .At the end of each episode the narrator said ” there are eight million stories in the naked city, this has been one of them !”

  • Lorenzo – thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed my piece! I have long thought the Constitution is better seen not so much a revolutionary document intended to break with the UK but a model for a better UK and the rights and values it represents – at least in the view of the Founding Fathers. The connection back to UK law and values though can be seen by the Supreme Court citing the Magna Carta over 100 times in judgements since 1819 to support principles like habeas corpus.

    As to Trump… all I’ll say is I can’t think of a successful politician whose unfavourability ratings (something like 66% anti now) have ever been as high as Trump’s. I think fundamentals like these means he won’t win in November without a dramatic October surprise.

    Matt – Yes, I may have been wrong to omit Ireland. My thinking was based more on agreements like the UKUSA Agreement and NATO and Commonwealth membership, not to mentioned shared history from WWI through to Afghanistan (something referenced by Obama in his welcoming remarks). You are right though, Ireland too is part of the Anglosphere and should be included in this list. I would contest South Africa though as their English speaking population is very much the minority.

    And believe me, living in the U.S. I am constantly aware and reminded of the cultural differences too – conversation about cricket and rugby are often a non-starter. But let’s not kid ourselves that we are better than Americans when it comes to our politics – 1 in 10 voters voted for UKIP last May, which is almost certainly a higher percentage of the electorate than have so far voted for Trump here in the U.S.

    On the EU – yes we do have a shared history with the EU but I don’t think it is one that necessarily comes as naturally as our ties with the Anglosphere. Doesn’t make it any less important however.

    Paul – I can only speak from my experience. There are certainly a great deal of differences but I think in our international outlook we share a great deal. As to common language… in my experience we are much more “two nations divided by a common language”!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 12th Mar '16 - 2:08pm


    What do you do there , is it work or relationship that is why you are in the States?
    Keep in touch on here !

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