Image by Lia Kantrowitz
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
These are uncertain times for the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States. In decades past, no one needed to worry that, when there were wars to be fought, profits to be made, and financial regulations to be slashed, trusty old sidekick Britain would be there to back up gallivanting leading man America.
You have to wonder whether that will change now that Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee. British politicians from all parties have been lining up to cash in some free positive PR by having a pop at the biggest target in world politics. David Cameron called his proposal to ban all Muslims from the US “divisive, stupid, and wrong.” The new Labour mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, called Trump “ignorant.”
But the Trump is a violently sensitive man, and he’s not happy about all this. When Piers Morgan put the quotes to him, he seemed to threaten Khan, saying “tell him I will remember those statements,” and hinted that Cameron’s comments mean the US and the UK “won’t have such a good relationship any more.”
With this in mind, I met up with Simon Tate, author of, A Special Relationship? British Foreign Policy in the Era of American Hegemony, and a senior lecturer in the school of Geography, Politics, and Sociology at Newcastle University.
Illustration by Sam Taylor
VICE: Hi Simon. How important is the special relationship right now, for both Britain and the United States?
Simon Tate: The first mention of there being an Anglo-American “special relationship” is in Winston Churchill’s “Sinews of Peace” address, delivered in Fulton, Missouri in 1946. He said, “Neither the sure prevention of war, nor the continuous rise of a world organization, will be gained without what I have called the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples… a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and United States.”
In the British public psyche, the relationship is still very important. For politicians, it’s not quite as important as it once was. Both Obama and Cameron have made comments over the last seven years that have sought to move the focus of their foreign policy elsewhere. Cameron once said Britain should be less “needy” when it comes to the US.
A number of British politicians have attacked Donald Trump. In return, Trump has said that, “It looks like we’re not going to have a very good relationship.” What do you think a Trump–Cameron special relationship would look like?
My best guess is that a Trump-Cameron relationship will be fairly frosty at a personal level, but the relationship will endure at least at the level of security and intelligence sharing, which is where the relationship really is special and functions best. In fairness to Trump, we also have to remember that the US doesn’t instinctively think of the Anglo-American relationship as a special one—that’s a British term.
Even if he doesn’t become president, Donald Trump might come to Britain soon as part of a foreign trip. That could be a diplomatic nightmare, right?
If you’re the British government, normally you want to meet potential incoming presidents early and get your priorities on the table. It’s just the done thing. I’ve got a hunch the British government might not want to do that, because if they do it’ll give Trump credibility as a potential leader and it forces the British to possibly re-think their foreign policy, which they certainly don’t want to do until the Brexit campaign is finished.
What happens if Cameron refuses to meet with Trump?
I don’t think there’s a precedent for that. Potentially, it seals what happens to the special relationship in the next eight to ten years. It’d be hasty to say that it ends the special relationship, because it tends to bounce back, but it certainly goes through some very frosty periods.
And if Cameron does meet with Trump, it could play very badly in the UK. It could actually be good for Britain’s Labour Party Leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
Yes, and I think Corbyn is very interesting here, because he has the potential to reshape British foreign policy. In the years to come, the special relationship won’t be as important as it used to be, but I don’t think the British public is ready for it to end. And I don’t think the Conservative party is ready for Europe to be our main foreign policy ally.
But I imagine Corbyn looking to speed up the movement of British foreign policy away from its alignment with the US—making us less “needy.” This will probably happen anyway, as Britain seems to be looking towards a multi-polar world with lots of foreign policy relationships, though that seems to have stalled recently under the current government. Under Corbyn, this move in foreign policy might evolve more quickly.
Theoretically, what would happen if Trump was president and Corbyn was prime minister?
Corbyn and Sanders would be a game-changer. If you think of those two working together over a significant period, you’d be looking at a very different kind of geo-politics. I think the special relationship would shrink to being a military, security, and intelligence relationship. Trump would have to be crazier than people think he is if he decided he didn’t want to share military and security intelligence. And that relationship operates at a level that is almost independent of who the president is.
Some would say a much more dangerous kind of geo-politics. That Trump and Corbyn would not be “responsible,” at least in issues of defense.
I think it depends on who you think should be defending the world. Let’s not forget the UN, let’s not forget NATO: is that not their job? It depends on many things, including whether you think Russia is dangerous or a useful balance.
How bad would things have to get between, say Trump and Cameron, for there to be trade or foreign policy implications?
I can’t imagine it ever coming to that. Ultimately, both Cameron and, increasingly, Trump, are hard-nosed politicians, and it isn’t in either of their interests to rewrite economic and foreign policy around a personal grudge. Also, much of the special relationship functions at a military and security level, almost independently of political leaders.
I don’t think we should confuse the term special relationship with a preferential relationship—it is special in the sense of shared culture and history, but not in terms of the two countries doing each other favors, as evidenced by Obama’s message that outside of the EU, Britain would have to go to the back of the queue for a new trade deal with the US.
But what happens if a British PM and Trump just don’t talk to each other?
For Britain, it’s a much bigger problem, because we’re used to the relationship being special, whereas America talks about “special relationships.” For most British people, it’s not about intelligence sharing; it’s about state visits. It’s about Obama on the Mall going to visit the Queen.
Blair was a classic example of British overstretch. He couldn’t say ‘let’s do less.’
So the worst-case scenario is that we don’t have Donald Trump meet the Queen?
We don’t have state visits, and in that sense, it looks like the special relationship has ended. But historically, when it has looked like it’s ended, it hasn’t, because of the importance of Europe and the role Britain played negotiating with Europe on America’s behalf. That role doesn’t exist any more.
So if the special relationship dips, can it recover this time?
America doesn’t need Britain the way it once did. In the past, when the relationship went frosty, it had to recover because both sides needed it to. Britain, with its diplomatic ties all over the world, was still a go-between for America. This time, America doesn’t quite need Britain in the way that it did.
This is something we forget: that Britain had phone numbers for the whole world.
Blair tried to exploit that in the run-up to the Iraq war. He was off touring the world, using these links and this influence.
Did it work?
No. It’s that kind of delusion: we’ve still got the phone numbers, but having them doesn’t mean you have influence.
So, really, the worst-case scenario could be a best-case scenario, one that actually allows a different kind of Britain to emerge, a Britain that is more happily realistic about its place in the world.
And about what it can and can’t achieve. It’s OK to say, “let’s do less” in the way that Blair, who was a classic example of British overstretch, couldn’t.
I can’t imagine former London Mayor Boris Johnson being happy about that, were he to be prime minister.
Oh god no.
How do you think him and Trump would get along?
Boris is a shrewd politician, so he’d make it work in some way. There is the shared neoliberal economic outlook with Trump, which bonded Reagan and Thatcher so well. The Johnsons also have family ties with the US. So did Churchill, Boris’s hero, and if Boris can use those ties to the same effect, it will certainly help to oil the diplomatic wheels.
The Boris and Donald show would be quite something.
It would be spectacular! Because they don’t have the diplomatic language you expect from politicians. I wouldn’t say stream-of-consciousness, but it’s not far off.
Would it be terrifying for the rest of the world?
It would be terrifying because it would be unpredictable. I think what you are hoping is that, in Britain’s case, the civil service sets the agenda and says, “This is what we need to do. There are certain limits on what you can and can’t do.” In America, it’s different, but you are still hoping for checks and balances to come into play.
We’ve had this concern in the past—that the personalities of presidents and prime ministers will conflict and that the special relationship will be damaged. But with Blair and Bush, Obama and Brown, and Obama and Cameron, the status quo has prevailed. Will that not be what happens again, even if Donald Trump gets in?
More than likely, the special relationship will prevail. Anthony Eden spectacularly annoyed the Americans through the invasion of Suez, yet his successor MacMillan got on incredibly well with President Kennedy and no lasting damage was done. It is also true that personalities are only one facet of the special relationship—many suggest that it is the military, security, and intelligence sharing which is more important. If anything makes the special relationship less important going forward, it will either be the strengthening of the EU as a foreign policy actor—and how Britain responds to that—or the refocusing of US foreign policy away from Europe and Russia and towards the Middle East.