Articles on the special relationship are not very special. Any time there is a major political development in the US or the UK or a major international crisis, someone inevitably asks: “what does this mean for the special relationship?” This person is almost always British, which should give some immediate sense of the one-sided nature of the relationship. But regardless the genre persists and even thrives.
The election of Donald Trump is, of course, an excellent occasion for the self-obsessed and the insecure to speculate on the state of the issue that matters most to them, not least the special relationship. Given that we are talking about Donald Trump there are always fun, albeit wildly speculative things, to say. If you keep reading, I promise that I will say some fun and wildly speculative things about Trump and the special relationship.
But first, we should ground that speculation in some hard truths about the state of that relationship. Because even President Donald Trump, for all of his many destructive talents, cannot kill what is already dead. And the US-UK special relationship was indeed dead before ‘the Donald’ upended American politics.
This is not to say that United States and the United Kingdom don’t enjoy a good relationship that benefits both sides. They share important values and interests, they have deep and persistent cultural ties, and they work together effectively on many issues of importance, including core issues such as counterterrorism. In particular, they have a very strong relationship on intelligence issues, which both sides deeply value.
So let’s stipulate that the U.S. and the UK are strong and effective allies, which is a point not to be sneezed at in a difficult, unfriendly world. But if a relationship is to be special, it must be, well, special, which is to say unique and viewed as such by both sides.
Simply put, the United States does not see the relationship as very special any more. And despite all of the handwringing from British officials about the special relationship as a bedrock of British foreign policy, the UK has certainly participated in making the relationship more normal.
The 2003 Iraq War created the sense within Britain, that too special a relationship with the United States could easily lead the UK into misadventure, with rather disastrous consequences. The image of a strong British leader became someone who could stand up to an uncouth American President and say no, as exemplified by Hugh Grant’s portrayal of the British prime minister in the 2003 movie, Love Actually.
Particularly after David Cameron took office in 2010, the United Kingdom did indeed begin to say no. It increasingly withdrew from the global role that the United States so values. It reduced its defense spending dramatically; it became much less supportive of U.S. efforts in other regions, exemplified by the British parliament’s rejection of a proposed U.S. bombing campaign in Syria in 2013 and its rejection of the U.S. effort to influence the creation of the China-inspired Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB); and most prominently, it voted to withdraw from the European Union in 2016 despite the vociferous objections of the U.S. president. It has throughout the last several years, been absorbed with its own domestic struggles, budgetary problems, and referendums, at the expense of its partnership with the United States.
In the United Kingdom, there were always explanations as to why these developments were not meant to reflect on the special relationship. The Syria vote was about bad party discipline and faulty vote counting; the AIIB incident reflected poor American diplomacy; the EU referendum was about domestic and European politics not about Britain’s global role or the special relationship.
These explanations have a lot of validity, but in Washington the individual explanations do not matter. The overall effect has been to convince the United States that Britain could no longer perform the role of America’s special partner in the world—and indeed no longer wanted to.
And the United States had other options to fill Britain’s place. It has in the last several years dramatically strengthened its relationship with France and Germany. France is already arguably America’s military partner of choice in Africa and the Middle East. Germany is most certainly the place where America goes to seek leadership on European issues, including the financial crisis and the relationship with Russia.
The United Kingdom has become a place where U.S. officials go to have a press conference in English and solemnly pronounce the words “special relationship” before moving on to Paris or Berlin. In President Obama’s farewell tour of Europe, he didn’t even do that. He just proceeded directly to Berlin, where the British prime minister kindly showed up, along with other European leaders, to meet him. No one even found this very remarkable. This type of reaction befits a good relationship but not a special one.
Will Donald Trump reverse this trajectory? No one can really know, probably including Trump himself. So far, Trump’s foreign policy seems to be a weird admixture of nativism, dyspepsia, and the deeply held views of the last person he met with. Consistency and even coherence are unlikely to be its hallmarks.
But sometimes the last person he meets with is Nigel Farage, the erstwhile leader of the U.K. Independence Party. Farage campaigned for him and showed up in New York to appear by his side right after the election. Trump even suggested that he would make a great UK ambassador to the United States under his presidency, implying that the relationship could be more special if Farage were the conduit.
By virtue of their electoral victories, Trump and Farage have assumed a sort of leadership of the populist wave that is washing over democratic politics around the world. Their mutual admiration implies that they might seek to work together to encourage more such movements to take power and to reshape the world along nativist, anti-globalist lines. If they did this, the U.S.-UK relationship might again be a special relationship, but it would a very different kind of partnership than the one that made the global liberal order after World War II.
The British government forcefully rejected the idea of Nigel Farage as its ambassador in Washington, implying it would rather have no special relationship at all than the one that is on offer from Trump. So there it stays—until, to paraphrase the Anglo-American Henry James – the next turn of the populist screw.
Jeremy Shapiro is Research Director at the European Council on Foreign Relations.