• Harriet Ireland

What is the Current State of the 'Special Relationship'?

Although it got off to a bit of a rocky start, Britain and America’s relationship has since become one of the most enduring in global history. Over the last three centuries Great Britain and the United States have been allies in war, friends in peace, partners in trade and leaders in kind, and thus the two nation’s relationship is often regarded as ‘special’. However, with Britain on the verge of Brexit and with Trump’s unconventional leadership, is the current state of affairs set to make this esteemed relationship stronger or is it the beginning of a thaw in a once unbreakable friendship?

Since Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency in January 2017, the UK’s position as closest ally to the US has been called into question. With many UK cities joining in protest with those marching across America the day after Trump’s inauguration, the British public made their opinion on the new leader of the free world known. Whilst Theresa May was received in Washington as Trump’s first foreign dignitary, and a joint press conference highlighted the continuing strength of the ‘special relationship’, May admitted that allies do not always have to get along, perhaps siting an early inclination as to her apprehension to the US/UK relationship with Trump at the helm. Donald Trump then cancelled his first visit to the UK in 2018 to open the new American Embassy, citing dissatisfaction with Obama’s dealing of the embassy move, however it was widely alleged that he and his advisors chose not to come due to the multiple protests planned across London. When he eventually came in July 2018 it was a low-key affair, meeting just with the Queen and PM Theresa May, instead of the pomp expected for a major head of state. Moreover, Trump openly criticised Theresa May’s handling of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, and has late night tweeted against Mayor Sadiq Kahn over crime rates in London.

Most recently, the diplomatic relationship has become further strained when cables from the UK ambassador to the US Kim Darroch were leaked. The cables revealed that members of the foreign office in Washington believed the Trump administration to be “uniquely dysfunctional” and “inept”. Ambassador Darroch was forced to resign, encouraged by Trump and shown a lack of support by then prime ministerial candidate Boris Johnson. A move seen as unnecessary by some including Theresa May and the Foreign Office, as diplomats are required to speak candidly in order for them to do their job. Yet many thought that this would be a final nail in the coffin for the so-called ‘special’ relationship.

However, weeks later and minutes after the announcement of Boris Johnson as Britain’s new Prime Minister, Donald Trump tweeted his congratulations and in a subsequent interview called Boris “Britain’s Trump”. This likening is not a surprise in reality but a definite shock in diplomatic protocol. Bearing a similar physical resemblance, their unique individualised leadership styles also draws comparison. Both men are “larger-than-life populists” who played to the fears of others to win their elections, often with little regard for others when voicing their opinions [1]. Moreover, although strong relationships were formed with Blair and Bush and even Obama and Cameron, Trump and Johnson are more closely aligned ideologically. They have pushed their respective parties further right wing, leaning on ideas of nationalism and independence, Trump in the vein of “America First” and I would argue Johnson through his anti-immigration rhetoric throughout the Brexit campaign. Their similar political motivations could mean that we will see a renewed effort between the two leaders to form a stronger bond, however would any resulting deals necessarily be welcomed by citizens of either country who disagree with their leaders and their more extreme views?

Remain Campaign 2016 artwork depicting a possible post-Brexit scenario

One of Trump’s early promises to the new British leader was an “accelerated series of trade deals” between the US and UK. Trump boasted that these would be straight forward and widely supported however Prime Minister Johnson was seen to be slightly more apprehensive. Within these deals Trump wishes to prioritise manufacturing which more obviously serves his re-election campaign than the priorities of either nations’ trade culture, suggesting that Trump is merely offering negotiations with Boris, a more welcoming counterpart, which would allow him to further his own political agenda. Further, Trump revealed that he wanted to use the recent G7 summit to support Boris at his first international leadership meeting and “send a signal” to the other European countries about the US’s support of Brexit. Although siding with his fellow European leaders in insisting that Russia not be readmitted into the group, against Trump’s wishes, Boris did meet with Trump to discuss a possible trade deal and the future of the two nations relationship, although details of the meeting’s outcome are still unclear. Perhaps then we can view this as the start of a new chapter in the history of this alliance.

Trump and Johnson at the 2019 G7 Summit in Biarritz

As Britain begins a new era alone in the international world, apart from the EU, perhaps a renewed relationship between these two nations, ushered in by the unlikely friendship of two unconventional leaders, might be the boost the UK needs to re-establish themselves in the international arena.

[1] https://www.npr.org/2019/07/23/744076619/boris-johnson-britains-next-prime-minister-shares-similarities-with-trump?t=1566984767608

At the time of writing, Harriet Ireland is a fourth year student at the University of Edinburgh. She is studying History and Politics. Areas that interest her the most are US politics and UK foreign relations.