“The greatest alliance the world has ever known” was Donald Trump’s description of the US-UK relationship, during his state visit to Britain just five weeks ago.
But the afterglow of dinner at Buckingham Palace did not last very long. On Tuesday, the US president delivered an unprecedented blow ;to the “special relationship” between the US and the UK that effectively forced Kim Darroch, the British ambassador to Washington, out of his job.
The shock of seeing a British ambassador denounced by a US president as a “pompous fool” and made persona non grata by the White House will reverberate for a long time. Thomas Wright, head of the Center on the US and Europe at the Brookings Institution in Washington, believes that US-UK relations have reached a “postwar low”.
Some might respond that a spat over a leaked diplomatic cable cannot compare with a dispute over questions of war and peace — such as the Suez crisis of 1956, when the US forced the UK to abandon a military intervention in Egypt. But Mr Wright argues that “this may even surpass Suez in the sense there is not even an underlying strategic reason for the rift”. In the Darroch affair the root cause of the dispute was simply the sensitivity of Mr Trump, who could not bear the fact that Sir Kim had described his administration in leaked emails as “inept” and “chaotic”;.
But while there may be no real strategic origins to this dispute, it has enormous strategic implications for the UK. Boris Johnson, who is almost certain to be the new leader of the Conservative party and Britain’s prime minister by the end of this month, has an approach to the world that is built around the special relationship.
In a televised leadership debate this week, Mr Johnson endorsed Mr Trump’s recent paean to the historic significance of the US-UK alliance. And, in an effort to keep himself in the president’s good books, Mr Johnson pointedly refrained from expressing support for Sir Kim — a silence that contributed to the ambassador’s decision to resign the next day.
Mr Johnson’s willingness to appease the White House points to how lopsided the special relationship has become — with Britain looking more like a supplicant than a partner of the US. The prime minister-in-waiting’s stance towards the Trump administration is dictated by his determination to take Britain out of the EU ;by October 31 — “do or die”. With a disorderly rupture in economic and diplomatic relations with the EU looming, Mr Johnson evidently believes that he simply cannot afford to antagonise the US government as well.
For hard Brexiters, such as Mr Johnson, the great benefit of leaving the EU’s single market and customs union is that it will free Britain to make new trade deals around the world — and a deal with the US is the biggest prize of all. On his recent visit to the UK, Mr Trump dangled the prospect of a “phenomenal” new trade deal with America, which would only become possible once Britain had left the EU.
However, Mr Trump’s volatility, his “America First” nationalism and his treatment of the ambassador should act as a loud alarm bell for UK negotiators.
“There are no special relationships with Trump’s America,” says Jeremy Shapiro, a former US state department official who is now head of research at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Every relationship is transactional, entirely subject to the president’s domestic political needs or simply to his mood . . . A Britain led by Boris Johnson may pursue the fantasy that appeals to Trump’s ego, or America’s historic bond will buy Britain some special consideration. But Mr Johnson will soon find out that Mr Trump has no friends and no loyalty.”
That Mr Trump’s peculiar personality is so central to the current rift offers some grounds for comfort. Karin von Hippel, a former official in the administration of Barack Obama who now heads the Royal United Services Institute in London, notes that “below the leadership level, US-UK relationships are wide and deep, in both the civilian and military spheres, and that will likely continue”.
But even setting aside Mr Trump’s influence, politics on both sides of the Atlantic will make it extremely hard to conclude a US-UK deal.
The US demands are likely to include opening up the UK food and healthcare markets. But American “chlorinated chicken” has already assumed almost mythical status in the UK, as an example of an allegedly repellent product that must be kept out of Britain at all costs. There are also fears that American pharmaceutical companies may demand controversial changes to the National Health Service’s drug-buying practices, which could raise prices.
What is less well known in Britain is that there could also be substantial political problems pushing a trade deal through Congress.
Britain will only be able to offer reduced tariffs to the US if it leaves the EU’s customs union. But that decision could lead to a hard border ;between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, in violation of the Good Friday peace accord. Any such action would antagonise the Irish-American lobby in Congress. On a recent visit to London, Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, said it was inconceivable that Congress would pass a trade deal with the UK if Britain had violated the Good Friday Agreement.
Mr Johnson’s foreign policy is therefore likely to be based on several unreliable propositions. The first is that it will be possible to swiftly negotiate a new, improved Brexit deal with the EU. The second is that if a new Brexit deal is, in fact, unachievable, a no-deal Brexit will be relatively painless for Britain. And the third is that divorce from the EU will free Britain to swiftly conclude a trade deal with the Trump administration.
Mr Johnson may or may not believe these ideas. But most of Britain’s allies regard them as dangerous fantasies. In another leaked diplomatic cable Scott Wightman, Britain’s retiring high commissioner in Singapore, lamented “the lasting damage that has been done to the UK in the eyes of Singaporeans and around the world” by the “shambles” of Brexit.
The sense that Britain has lost the plot — and is therefore unusually vulnerable — means that it is not just Mr Trump’s America that feels able to treat the UK with a new disdain. In their different ways, the EU, China, Russia and even Iran are testing just how far a weakened Britain can be pushed.
In comparison with Mr Trump, the EU’s Brexit negotiators have been scrupulously polite in their dealings with the British government. But they have also been remorseless negotiators who have forced the British to make concession after concession in the Brexit talks. The negotiating process has been a brutal lesson in the balance of power between the EU and the UK. It has also demystified the British government, which had formerly been regarded as a model of competence and rationality in Brussels, but which has frequently seemed unprepared and blinded by ideology and wishful thinking.
China is meant to play a central role in the “Global Britain” project that is key to the UK’s post-Brexit strategy. But relations with Beijing have also soured in recent months over a range of issues — including British naval patrols in the South China Sea and the UK’s rhetorical support for demonstrations in Hong Kong. Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the UK, this month accused Britain of clinging to a “colonial mindset”.
In private, Chinese officials have told their UK counterparts that further patrols in the South China Sea will end British hopes of a “golden era” in relations after Brexit. British desperation to secure new trade deals means that Beijing feels confident taking a hard line and a harsh tone.
A perception of British weakness has security as well as economic implications. The Skripal affair in 2018 — in which agents of the Russian government attempted to kill a former Russian double agent living in the UK — shocked diplomats, partly because it suggested that Moscow felt able to act with impunity on British soil. Some officials in British security circles are watching for further Russian challenges to Britain in the immediate aftermath of Brexit.
The most immediate security crisis facing the UK, however, is taking place in the Gulf, where the Royal Navy has just had to fend off an Iranian attempt ;to impede a British oil tanker. The Iranians seem to be reacting to Britain’s seizure of an Iranian tanker near Gibraltar, as part of an effort to enforce sanctions on Syria. Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, claims that the operations of the British navy prove that the UK is “scared” and “hopeless”.
If there is a direct clash between British and Iranian forces, the UK will look immediately to the US for support. Given the Trump administration’s own rising antagonism towards Tehran, that support might well be forthcoming.
But one lesson of the Darroch affair is that the British can no longer make any safe assumptions about the Trump administration’s behaviour. For almost 50 years, British foreign policy has been based on the twin pillars of a special relationship with the US and membership of the EU. Without those pillars securely in place, the world looks a much more dangerous place for Britain.
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