In one of “Saturday Night Live’s” more iconic sketches in the late 1980s, you could always count on Dana Carvey’s memorable Enid Strict, the Church Lady, to deliver the sarcastic punch line: “Well, isn’t that SPE-CIAL!” So too, you half expect President Trump to utter the same line on his state visit to the United Kingdom about the longstanding “special relationship” between London and Washington. While the unique ties between the two allies remain strategically important, current tensions are stressing those bonds in dangerous ways.
President Trump toasted the “eternal friendship” between America and Britain at the state banquet hosted by Queen Elizabeth on Monday evening. But, of course, that friendship has been anything but eternal.
In America’s first hundred years, two wars were fought with the British. And the U.S. military maintained plans for a third war, which included a possible invasion of Canada from the south. Despite overlapping language and a shared cultural heritage, what became a special relationship was not inevitable. It had to be established through wars and nurtured over decades by the leaders of the two countries. Today, it should not be taken for granted – either in London or Washington.
On the British side, London has to take more seriously the fact that the United States is facing first-order strategic challenges, in not just one key theater of the world but in three. Although the British government has taken steps to help put more backbone into NATO’s deterrence posture in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the brazen assassination attempt on English soil of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, it has not seen the threat from the revisionist states of Iran and China similarly.
London’s disagreement with the Trump administration’s decision to unilaterally pull out of the Iranian nuclear agreement – an agreement signed by multiple governments, including the U.K. – is understandable. Less understandable, however, is London’s not working with the U.S. to use the current biting sanctions regime on Iran to press for a new, more adequate deal. The U.K. could play “good cop” to the U.S.' “bad cop,” but only if the two capitals were to work together.
As for China, the British government seems so concerned about the possible economic fallout of leaving the European Union Customs Union that keeping Chinese monies flowing into the U.K., and trade relations good, outweighs standing alongside the U.S. when it comes to addressing Beijing’s Asian and global ambitions.
This is nowhere more evident than in the British government’s decision to disregard in effect Washington’s worries about allowing Huawei equipment and software into the U.K. 5G network or, more personally, accept former Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to head an investment fund for China’s Belt and Road initiative.
On the American side, the Trump administration could be more forward-leaning and understanding when it comes to a free-trade agreement between the two countries. It’s true that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has stated that, if and when, the U.K. does exit the EU’s customs union, it will be at “the front of the queue” for a trade deal with the United States.
However, the U.K. can only optimize that position, according to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, if there is a clean break from the union. This ignores the economic reality that the U.K.’s largest trading partners are with the states of the European Union and that, furthermore, the kind of clean break the officials are suggesting endangers a key element of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement to keep the border open between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
It is virtually inevitable that, down the road, London will want to reestablish economic ties in some form with the E.U. to sustain its economy and keep the intra-Irish border free of divisive controls. Leaving the EU is obviously difficult enough for the U.K. without Washington putting down red lines that frustrate and complicate matters further.
The Trump administration can also be of help to the British government by reaffirming, in the most public way possible, the importance of NATO and the U.K.’s role in the alliance.
Leaving the E.U. means London’s venues for having a say in continental affairs has been cut in half. It’s all the more important then for President Trump not to belittle such forums, especially in light of the fact that the next NATO summit will be held this fall in London just as the U.K. is leaving the European Union.
If the administration hasn’t noticed, it should take note of the fact that the British military and its intelligence agencies has been standing alongside American forces and our intelligence community in virtually every conflict since World War II. Britain might not be the power it once was, but alongside Australia, it is our most dependable ally when it comes to putting lives on the line.
Poor-mouthing British leaders as the president has regularly done is not only rude but also impolitic given what we have to lose in cooperation should the “special” finally go out of the special relationship.