When he visited Britain last year, President Donald Trump nodded to the venerable “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom. “Our bond is like no other,” he proclaimed.
But as he prepares for his first state visit to the longtime ally next week, close observers say Britain’s influence in Washington is at a low point, suffering from a long-term decline accelerated by the one-two punch of Brexit and the election of Trump, whose actions have done more to harm the relationship than his words may suggest.
Story Continued Below
On the military front, Britain is arguably less important to the United States than in years past, as its armed forces have shrunk and France has stepped up to catch wandering American eyes. On economics, the Trump administration is already pushing a hardline stance ahead of potential negotiations for a trade deal that would take effect once Britain leaves the European Union. Even the two countries’ famously close intelligence relationship is hitting obstacles as Trump aides threaten to withhold secrets if Britain doesn’t bar the Chinese firm Huawei from building its cellular networks.
Diplomats say that despite his occasional oratorical assurances, Trump himself appears to care little for the countries’ “special relationship” or international alliances in general. He has accused Britain of spying on his presidential campaign and undermined outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May in interviews and on Twitter, essentially endorsing one of May’s critics for her post and questioning her efforts to engineer a proper Brexit.
“At no moment has the fact of being an ally in anyway prevented Trump from trying to twist the arm of the other side,” said Gérard Araud, until recently the French ambassador to the United States. “The special relationship was more special on the British side than the American side.”
The state of the relationship will face intense scrutiny next week, when Trump travels to Britain for his official state visit. The visit, which the British promised early on in Trump’s tenure, was once seen as a chance to reaffirm the countries’ bond, but the pomp and circumstance-filled event is likely to instead expose the spreading cracks.
Trump will land in Britain amid chaos. May is due to quit her post within days of Trump’s departure, she has no clear successor and British politicians have been unable to settle on a plan to leave the EU. The British are wary that Trump will wade into the fractious debate, perhaps endorsing Brexit hardliner Boris Johnson to replace May, or even meeting with Nigel Farage, leader of the populist Brexit Party.
During Trump’s trip to the U.K. last year, dubbed a “working visit,” London erupted with demonstrations, generating lasting images of a giant diapered and screaming baby Trump balloon. Protests are expected this time, too.
The British Embassy did not offer anyone for comment, while the White House pointed to Trump’s past comments praising the British-U.K. relationship. But a former staffer at the British Embassy in D.C. told POLITICO that the main change in the “special relationship” is simple — Trump.
“Trump is always looking for leverage,” the former staffer complained.
A White House official pushed back on the characterization.
“The special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom is fundamental to our shared security and prosperity,” the official said. “The United States has no closer partner than the U.K.”
On trade, Trump and his aides have shown no inclination to offer favorable terms to London, which is desperate to strike a bilateral deal with Washington once it leaves the EU.
The Trump administration is already pursuingtough termssure to be deeply unpopular in Britain. For instance, the U.S. wants the British to drop restrictions on GMOs — genetically modified foods — and chlorine-washed chicken products. Such restrictions currently align the U.K. with EU standards on food products.
America’s ambassador to Britain, Woody Johnson, recently published a column in which he urged the British to embrace the American approach to such products and ignore the “smear campaign from people with their own protectionist agenda.”
Trump has long taken a hard line on trade negotiations, convinced that even U.S. allies are cheating Americans on such deals, so his administration’s treatment of the U.K. so far isn’t exactly a surprise.
Araud, perhaps, put it most bluntly. “Trump is really very transactional,” he told POLITICO. “I don’t see any reason to believe that he will be nice with the British.”
Democrats have similarly cautioned that Brexit could hurt the two countries’ future trading relationship.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recentlytoldthe Irish parliament that there will be no post-Brexit U.S.-U.K. trade deal if Britain’s departure from the EU threatens the 1998 Good Friday peace accord that eased tensions in Northern Ireland, a notable remark given that Trump will likely need lawmakers’ approval for any trade deal.
Britain’s expected exit from the EU has raised concerns that a border will have to be imposed between Northern Ireland, which is considered part of the U.K., and the rest of Ireland, given that Ireland will remain in the EU. The notion of imposing a “hard border” has already to led to warnings that violence could return to the region.
While Britain will remain a member of the NATO alliance, the bilateral U.S.-U.K. military relationship has grown weaker, observers say.
When speaking of how the British had “vanished” in Washington, Araud told the Financial Times earlier this year: “The British ambassador told me — and I loved it — that every time the British military is meeting with the American military, the Americans are talking about the French.”
Former U.S. officials and analysts say Araud is not entirely exaggerating.
The size of the British armed forces has shrunk in recent decades, and the country has imposed repeated funding cuts while struggling to articulate a military vision and get new recruits, according to analysts.
“You talk to the Brits, but you don’t expect a lot because they’re so tied up in their own drama,” said Derek Chollet, a former top Pentagon official in the Obama administration. “For many years, for decades, they stood out from the pack of partners. Now they’re kind of back in the pack a little bit, and others are playing a role that traditionally they would play.”
Michael Shurkin, a senior political scientist with the RAND Corporation, said it’s not so much that the U.S. thinks less of the British as it is that it’s intrigued by the French. He compared the situation to the famousmemeof the young man walking with his girlfriend while eyeing another woman.
“The French have this incredible cohesion and coherence when it comes to their vision of what their military is for,” Shurkin said. “The money is there, they know what to do with it and they’re moving forward.”
While the British joined the French and the U.S. in intervening in Libya against dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, the U.K. parliament voted down an attempt to pursue military strikes against the Syrian regime in 2013 after it is alleged to have used chemical weapons.
“We could look back and see Libya as kind of the last gasp of the U.K. in terms of its meaning in the world,” Chollet said.
Even the British-U.S. intelligence relationship faces new strain.
Amid his praise of the “special relationship” on a recent visit to Britain, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cautiously warned the British that if they move ahead with using the Chinese firm Huawei to help them build their future telecommunications networks, the U.S. will think twice about sharing information with them.
“Insufficient security will impede the United States’ ability to share certain information within trusted networks,” Pompeo said.
Despite the strains, compared to most other bilateral relationships, the one between Britain and the United States remains unusually tight, even the most cynical observers acknowledge.
The cultural and linguistic similarities between the two countries run deep, as does the shared history encompassing World War II and its aftermath. During Trump’s state visit next week, he will attend a ceremony to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day, a powerful reminder of how the two countries have stood by each other in the darkest moments.
“Our countries cherish the same beliefs in liberty, democracy and the rule of law,” said Jeremy Hunt, the British foreign secretary, when he hosted Pompeo earlier this month.
In turn, Pompeo repeatedly praised U.S.-U.K. ties, pointing out that British diplomats even get unusually broad access to the State Department. “The ‘special relationship’ is the beating heart of the entire free world,” Pompeo said.
But Brexit has so thoroughly dominated British politics that the country appears to have little capacity for much else, analysts and officials say.
The bitter divorce with the EU was supposed to have already taken place, but political disarray has led to several extensions, with no end in sight. And when the expected separation takes effect, a huge chunk of the British apparatus will have to focus for years on actually implementing it.
Former U.S. officials and analysts described Brexit as a self-imposed wound that is hastening the decades-long downward trend in British influence worldwide.
Some even say that, due to Brexit, Trump or other reasons, the U.K.-U.S. relationship is at its worst point since the Suez Canal crisis of 1956, which saw a falling out between the two countries over Britain’s decision to join a military campaign against Egypt.
“I think it’s much worse than the Suez crisis, in the sense that the Suez crisis occurred during the Cold War so there still was this external threat that was pushing the United States and the U.K. together,” said Charles Kupchan, a former Obama administration official now with the Council on Foreign Relations.
The former British embassy staffer who bemoaned Trump’s effect on U.S.-U.K. ties took some solace in pointing out that — in the grand scheme — it’s not just Britain that has had tensions with America under Trump. Neither France nor Germany have fared much better.
Instead, Trump appears to save his kindest words for strongmen in countries such as Russia and North Korea, while the leaders of traditional allies are left scratching their heads over how to respond to his unpredictable moods.
“The president has a preference for autocratic regimes,” the ex-staffer said. “Everything is so reactionary for all Western countries in Washington.”