The Hollowing Out of the Special Relationship

The Bleak Future of the U.S.-British Alliance

British Prime Minister Theresa May and U.S. President Donald Trump gesture towards each other during their joint news conference at the White House in Washington, January 2017. Kevin Lamarque / REUTERS

Despite intermittent runs on the pound sterling and a plunge in business confidence, British Prime Minister Theresa May has doubled down on her government’s commitment to go through with a so-called hard Brexit, a full-scale departure from European Union membership. The United Kingdom would be wise, however, to reconsider leaving the EU on the basis of a non-binding vote, for one of the principal costs would be the loss of the country’s outsize global role, mirroring the United States’ own nationalist tilt with the election of President Donald Trump.

By all accounts, Trump and May hit it off in their first meeting in January. Yet before May had even touched down in Ankara the next day, for a summit with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump had issued his seven-country Muslim ban, prompting numerous segments of British society and Parliament to pressure the prime minister to respond in some way. Over two million signed a petition asking her to rescind her invitation to Trump to visit Queen Elizabeth II.

Assuming the United Kingdom is on track for a hard Brexit, it is in something of a precarious position. At present, the historically significant special relationship with the United States has become highly mismatched, with the May government taking on the role of supplicant to a new U.S. administration that is brimming with swagger and self-confidence—and believing that the world is tilting in its nativist direction. In fact, Trump’s nationalism may hasten the decline in May’s domestic support.

Even if their successful meeting were to translate into anything lasting, the special relationship no longer resembles the reliably close bilateral relationship at the heart of the greater Western alliance that it once was. May still needs Trump for support on Brexit and a trade deal, and Trump still needs the support of the United States’ oldest and most trustworthy ally for his own fledgling legitimacy. Yet each leader is now reinforcing policies of the other that are

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