The recent visit by U.S. President Donald Trump to the UK has done much to assure everyone that the special relationship is still there. Despite the early rhetoric when the President lectured the UK on Brexit and made insulting remarks against London mayor Sadiq Khan, the warmth showcased at his state reception at Buckingham Palace and the positive coverage of his visit to Portsmouth to commemorate the D-day landings suggested that the Anglo-American relationship remained very much alive both in terms of optics and policy on the ground.
This was made evident when both leaders spoke at a joint news conference emphasising the importance of a relationship which is likely to gain even more currency as Prime Minister Theresa May steps down and Boris Johnson – the most likely contender for PM so far – takes charge. It is no secret that Trump shares a warm relationship with Johnson, a strong advocate of Brexit, who is likely to push for an even closer relationship with the U.S. post the UK’s exit from Europe.
For former foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai however the relationship is something that transcends personalities. Mathai who has also served as India’s High Commissioner to the UK believes that common concerns shared by the two countries have ensured that they will remain allies for the foreseeable future. “The U.S. and the UK have strong interests that have bound them together for decades. In terms of security, the special relationship and NATO is at the cornerstone of UK defence. They have strong economic ties and an intelligence agreement such as Five Eyes or FYEV which goes back to the post-World War-II period. If we come to today, common concerns, especially with regard to China and Iran, will ensure that such cooperation will only deepen.”
The Anglo-American ‘special relationship’ has a long history. The term which was first coined by British statesman Winston Churchill reached its highlight during the era of President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and then continued with Thatcher and President George Bush Sr. during the first Gulf War. Along with shared values and a common experience of fighting in the World War, Britain which lost its status as a world power sought to remain relevant by allying with the world’s superpower – the United States. The result has been a strong alliance.
On its part, the U.S. sees the UK not just as a valuable ally, as exemplified in the two Gulf wars, but also as a useful counter-balance to prevent the rise of Europe. Anxiety over a strong and united Europe and the challenges it posed to U.S. interests was best exemplified by U.S. Vice President Richard Cheney. Cheney who served during the George Bush Jr. regime had believed that a united Europe could undermine the role of NATO and that a strong bloc could result in more eastern European countries reaching out to Russia.
Some analysts believe that such concerns have always remained with the U.S. and have grown stronger under the Trump administration which sees a strong Europe as a challenger to the U.S. President’s policies on Iran and the ongoing trade war with China. This, they say, explains the president’s tough talk on Brexit and his bid to pull the UK away from Europe and towards America.
Not everyone shares this perception. Swaran Singh, Professor for Diplomacy and Disarmament at the Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament (CIPOD), School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University believes the tough talk has less to do with U.S. interests and more to do with what he calls the “personal style” of President Trump.
“Trump has often come into another country making off the cuff remarks and the UK is no different. One reason I attribute to these remarks is that Trump is trying to improve his personal ratings which are currently at around 21 per cent by making headlines. But what is interesting to note here is that especially in the last two years, these off the cuff remarks are often a mismatch with his actual policy. Trump has often shown that despite the rhetoric there is much room to manoeuvre and the UK will certainly take note of that.” says Singh.
While this is a positive indicator that the special relationship may take off again, this self-same “personal style” of President Trump will also prove to be a hindrance. The president’s promise of a “great trade deal” caused great excitement in the UK which quickly turned to panic as the local press reported that the country’s public health system – the NHS – would be made part of the deal. Trump quickly clarified but the damage had been done. The special relationship is there and it will remain but it will have to weather the vagaries of the U.S. president.