“Special relationship” is used so often to describe Anglo-American ties that it has long since become a cliché. But it still has force, reflecting not just tangible interests but the intangibles of culture, history, and shared roots of law and politics.
It is also not just a slogan but has reflected the continuing insight and often wisdom of some great leaders. Winston Churchill saw the need when Britain, in David Low’s famous cartoon, said defiantly, “Very well, alone!” Meanwhile, Franklin Roosevelt understood that bonding with Britain would be necessary for the survival of what most mattered to the United States. It was not just freedom—the US could shelter in its two-ocean hideaway—but the capacity to survive and succeed economically in relation to the great European productive heartland. He invited the King and Queen to Hyde Park in 1939, personally mixed them martinis, and then introduced them to the hotdog and American jazz.
Churchill and Roosevelt crafted the Atlantic Charter in Argentia, Newfoundland—an apt metaphor—and the prime minister was the first foreign visitor to the White House after Pearl Harbor. On being accidentally confronted by the president on emerging from his bath, Churchill supposedly—and most likely apocryphally—intoned: “The prime minister of Great Britain has nothing to hide from the president of the United States.”
Vignettes such as these helped to transform ties between two nations and peoples from simple realpolitik into the stuff of myth, which has endured to this day.
But we shall see how much longer.
For any friendship to be solid, it also must be based on candor: each friend telling the other when “you have got it wrong.” Thus Dwight Eisenhower, hero to the British as to the Americans for D-Day and beyond, scuppered the Anglo-French seizure of the Suez Canal. Some people in the United Kingdom to this day see that far-sighted act by the US president as betrayal; but it rescued Britain and its unbalanced prime minister from deeper immersion in a Middle East quagmire.
Sometimes, though, the special relationship has led to support from the other side of the Atlantic when it was wildly misplaced. Such was true of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s throwing in Britain’s lot with President George W. Bush—or, rather, “acting president” Dick Cheney—in the 2003 decision to invade Iraq. This was one of the worst US adventures abroad in modern times; or, as the new US president, Donald Trump, once called it, “a total mess, a total catastrophe.”
By contrast, sometimes Britain has saved the United States from grave error, as when the House of Commons refused to support a proposed US attack on Syria for its violating President Barack Obama’s “red line” in using poison gas against opposition forces. Obama then abandoned his plan but was rescued by Russian diplomatic intervention. His political opposition pilloried him, and even some allies questioned his judgment. But Syria would likely be an even worse mess today if the US had become direct engaged militarily in the tragic Syrian civil war.
There have been failures to give advice when it was truly needed. Thus the United States did not tell Prime Minister David Cameron that holding a referendum on leaving the European Union was ill-advised; worse, the Americans failed the special relationship by not urging Cameron and then the current prime minister either to ignore the referendum result or to seek a re-vote. Can anyone doubt that most people in the United Kingdom were not fully aware of the negative consequences of Brexit? Does no one understand that the only resort to the ballot box in the United Kingdom that is taken truly seriously is a general election for the House of Commons? By-elections are regular chances to protest against the sitting government. And how many people in the UK even know the name of their member of the European Parliament?
Maybe a word from the US president would have counted at Downing Street. The United States surely could see that Brexit is not just about leaving the EU but will inevitably mean a weakening of British influence in NATO. It will also lead to the loss of its necessary role in helping to direct European affairs with France and Germany and in dealing effectively with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. At the moment, with Prime Minister Theresa May, Britain is almost sleepwalking into one of the most consequential actions of its modern history; and few leaders of any stature in the UK, or its pundit class, are willing to say so. The simple fact is that “Europe,” of which the UK is an integral and indispensable part, has long since become an organic entity, however much it is being pulled and hauled in different directions. The same is true of the transatlantic relationship, which may be institutionally founded primarily on NATO but where a fully functioning European Union is an essential part.
But the United States government held its tongue.
May Meets Trump
This Friday, the curtain will go up on the next act of this saga of opportunities presented for tough love in the special Relationship, a demonstration of what true friendship must be.
At the White House on Friday, Prime Minister May will, it seems, try to strike a special trade deal with Trump, who finds multilateral trade to be anathema—demonstrated already by his withdrawing the US from negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The prime minister will stretch out her hand for an American life raft on trade to rescue the UK from the Brexit folly and to foster the almost comic illusion of a “Global Britain.” Global? When her government had to fiddle the figures even to meet the US-promoted goal for NATO allies of 2% of GDP in defense spending? For President Trump, having already broken more crockery in Transatlantic relations than all his predecessors combined over the past seven decades, having a British friend in court is welcome news.
But May and her government would be well-advised not to go to the bank just yet, based on whatever honeyed words and promises she receives during her visit this week to Washington. As Samuel Goldwyn once advised: “an oral agreement is not worth the paper it is written on.”
Maybe there is not sufficient wit and political courage in Britain’s ruling class and its commentariat to understand the folly of Brexit and how much damage its pursuit has already done to the political, economic, security, and psychological structures of Europe. But the prime minister can at least try to educate the American president that, however much it may be wise to try building a new relationship with Russia—and however much it may be wise not to try pushing on with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership—it is surely not wise for the United States to be putting at risk one of the fundamental factors of global politics: transatlantic ties and structures.
This is May’s most important task in the Oval Office this Friday—to try getting across to the new American president the magnitude of the responsibilities he has just assumed. In putting “America first,” he must take the greatest care before dismantling the vital role in the world that the United States has played for so many nations and people, and for so many years.
But maybe she will funk it. Maybe she will continue refusing to recognize the absurdity of Brexit. Maybe Trump will, for a time, carry on breaking crockery with abandon, both at home and abroad, before the facts of US political and economic life crowd in upon him and he finds that the United States has not gained leverage in the world. Even as he renovates decaying parts of the American economy and its infrastructure, he will realize that the United States has lost something inestimable. Once dissipated, that unquantifiable but precious commodity of influence is almost impossible to regain.
The British prime minister may be unwilling to speak truth to the US president about his (so far only) verbal assault on Western strength and solidarity. The U.S. president may not even sufficiently understand the damage done by Brexit to enable him to give advice. Still, these two leaders will no doubt embrace one another in the special relationship. But it could prove to have little value left in it.
This article was originally published in Lobelog.