The Not So Special Relationship

How Trump Has Bewildered the United Kingdom

U.S. President Donald Trump and U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May in London in June, 2019  Carlos Barria / REUTERS

In 2009, as then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was preparing to visit President Barack Obama in the White House for the first time, his aides devoted long strategy sessions to the nature of the gift that the prime minister would hand to the president. Eventually, they opted for a pen holder made from wood from the sister ship of H.M.S. Resolute—the nineteenth-century boat from which the Oval Office desk was made—and a seven-volume biography of Winston Churchill. The president’s staff had not been so thoughtful. In return, Obama handed Brown a set of DVDs that worked only on a North American DVD player.

The United States and the United Kingdom have shared what both have called a “special relationship” since the end of World War II, though in truth the connection is much older. The ties between the two countries’ governments are among the strongest and most harmonious between any two nations in the world. The countries have many of the same interests. Both have sought to uphold a rules-based international order. Both have been strong proponents of liberal democracy and free trade.

They have forged a powerful alliance in international bodies like the UN Security Council and NATO, and, at least until Brexit, the United Kingdom acted as a bridge between the United States and Europe. Though the closeness of the relationship has waxed and waned depending on the personalities in Downing Street and the White House, the underlying strength of the bureaucratic ties between diplomats, military officials, and intelligence agencies has endured—until now.

The United Kingdom has worried about the state of the so-called special relationship with the United States for as long as it has existed. “We’ve freighted it with all this symbolism, a lot of which is nonsense,” Simon Fraser, a former head of the United Kingdom’s diplomatic service, told me in an interview in London in September. “There is this exaggerated sense on the British side that United

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