Brexit makes Theresa May look even more dependent on Trump
LONDON – Many couples have a favourite song, something that reminds them of when they first got serious. For British Prime Ministers and American Presidents, their common tune dates back to 1946 and the lyrics were written by Winston Churchill. In a speech in Fulton, Missouri, that presaged the coming Cold War, he said the United States and Great Britain had a “special relationship” that was essential for keeping the global peace.
Ahead of Donald Trump’s first working visit to the UK, Theresa May said in a statement that “There is no stronger alliance than that of our special relationship with the US”. Yet the Trump era has made many in Britain, and not just those on the Left, wonder whether it is now time for a conscious uncoupling.
Away from the soaring rhetoric about a shared language and values, the UK and US’s close ties really stem of course from their military and intelligence links. What May calls “our longest and deepest defence and security relationship” is cemented daily through the two countries’ joint working of their armed forces and intelligence agencies.
We have a common pool of Trident nuclear missiles and nuclear reactors for warships and submarines. Britain is the second largest operator of America’s new F35 fast jet programme, locking us into a system that is designed for the next 40 years. Our troops and airmen work closely round the clock in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, as do our spies, cyber warfare specialists and special forces.
Yet on a broader political and cultural level, the “special relationship” also relies on a personal chemistry between the occupants of the White House and Downing Street, as well as sensitivities about the fact that the US is clearly the dominant partner. Churchill and Roosevelt forged friendship in the Second World War, Macmillan and Kennedy overcame political differences, Thatcher and Reagan literally danced together on a trip to Washington.
I remember being among the press pack at Camp David in 2001 when George W Bush revealed to a stunned press corps that he and Tony Blair used the same Colgate toothpaste. Blair quipped: “They are going to wonder how you know that, George.” That was before the Twin Towers attack, and everything that followed, but many Britons still cringe at Blair’s approach. The perils of getting too up close and personal with a President were summed up by a now infamous memo written ahead of the Iraq war, in which Blair said ‘I will be with you, whatever’.
Blair’s diplomatic love letter reflects what many in the UK see as an embarrassing neediness that isn’t always reciprocated. And from Paris to Beijing, Trump has done more than any other President in recent times to make clear he has a wandering eye when it comes to global partners.
Sir Peter Ricketts, Britain’s former National Security Adviser, tells me: “I’ve personally always been rather uncomfortable with this notion of a special relationship, because I think it’s much more special in our eyes than the American eyes. When [French President, Emmannuel] Macron was visiting, he talked about a ‘special relationship’ between the US and France. This is not monogamous on the American side, so it doesn’t need to be on the British side.”
I’ve personally always been rather uncomfortable with this notion of a special relationship, because I think it’s much more special in our eyes than the American eyes
Sir Peter Ricketts, Britain’s former National Security Adviser
It’s also worth remembering the remark by former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, borrowed from former British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, that “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests”. On a trip to Washington in 2012, David Cameron told Obama: “Barack, it is an honour to call you an ally, a partner, and a friend”.
Yet it was Obama, not Trump, who first pivoted Washington to look across the Pacific, not just the Atlantic. And even among European leaders, London looked second best. In a line that wounded both Cameron and British pride, at the end of his term Obama said it was Angela Merkel who “has probably been my closest international partner these last eight years”.
Brexit, which looms next March, means that May looks even more economically dependent on the US and she’ll be hoping Trump arrives with some warm words on the chances of a new trade deal. But US negotiators could drive too hard a bargain. May also knows that she needs a “deep and special partnership” with the EU to avoid the British economy going off a cliff.
More broadly, with her own push into China and India and other global markets, she’s learning that the UK will only survive if it has alliances across the planet. As he puts ‘America First’, Trump’s reign is proving to Britain that the special relationship is now an open marriage. In coming years it will look more like ‘friends with benefits’. And sometimes, if America-sceptic Jeremy Corbyn becomes PM, maybe not even friends.
Paul Waugh, Executive Editor of Politics, HuffPost UK
Trump doesn’t see a special relationship, he sees an opportunity
NEW YORK — Far from acting like an old friend, Washington insiders believe Donald Trump has little regard for the special relationship, and instead is pursuing predatory policy that seeks to exploit a vulnerable post-Brexit Britain.
Trump has seemed almost eager to deteriorate British-American relations throughout his term. His public clashes with May and London Mayor Sadiq Khan, as well as his retweets of far-right extremist group Britain First, have all strained ties – but he has also treated the UK as just another adversary in his zero-sum view of international relations.
“There’s no substantive evidence that he sees Britain as a special ally, that he regards them as different than any other country,” Tom Wright, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute think tank told me.
Trump and his team, for instance, are likely to take an aggressive stance in negotiations with the UK during his visit, knowing that the perilous state of Brexit negotiations may soon leave it isolated from Europe and in dire need of a bilateral trade deal to increase economic ties to the US.
“They don’t see the relationship strategically, they just see Britain as an easy economic mark,” Wright says.
“[Trump] is supporting Brexit rhetorically, but in an economic and trade sense he is trying to take advantage of Britain’s vulnerability.”
Trump’s poor relations with May haven’t helped, and he has reportedly complained about her “school mistress” tone when discussing policy matters with him. Going into the visit, Trump’s undermining of May by defending the recently resigned foreign secretary Boris Johnson and declaring that he expected the UK to be in “turmoil” have only confirmed the relationship with the Prime Minister is hardly special.
They don’t see the relationship strategically, they just see Britain as an easy economic mark
Tom Wright, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute
Trump’s dislike of May is in keeping with his long standing pattern of animosity toward female leaders and politicians, often reserving his most personal and impetuous attacks for women who challenge his authority.
“Clearly Trump has a problem with women leaders,” says Jonathan Katz, author of Man Enough? Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and the Politics of Presidential Masculinity.
“He’s clearly more comfortable with men – not just men leaders, but men in general.”
While Trump has sometimes managed to develop a rapport with male leaders who disagree with him, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, there has been no break in tensions with Merkel or May.
“There’s no evidence I’m aware of Trump having a good relationship with a senior female leader,” Wright said.
“He has a certain type. Internationally he likes strongmen, sort of authoritarian leaders.”
Given Trump has spent much of the past 48 hours firing off angry tweets about NATO funding ahead of the visit, expectations for the UK leg of the trip are low. Trump, who is easily wooed by spectacle, could be pacified by the military parade and meeting with the Queen on his schedule, but there are fears in Washington that he could just as easily increase tensions further.
“The best case scenario is the do no harm scenario, meaning that relations are not stretched any further,” Heather Conley, a State Department official under President George W Bush, told me.
“There’s not an incredible amount of substance that’s going to happen at this visit, unless it’s damage control.”
However, while Trump can do much to damage bilateral and even personal ties, there are also limits to how much he can blow up the most integral parts of the special relationship, leading to some in DC playing the long game.
Certain aspects of US-UK relations are heavily institutionalised, such as security agreements and intelligence sharing, so that it’s hard for Trump alone to destroy them – giving hope that the special relationship isn’t completely dead yet.
“That relationship transcends any one leader. It’s deep and embedded,” Conley said.
Nick Robins-Early, Senior World News Reporter, HuffPost US