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 States needs it as much as we do.”

One senior U.K. official viewed Trump as a threat as great as China, Russia, and ISIS.
 

At least during the Obama administration, the relationship still seemed to function. Since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, angst among British policymakers has reached a new high. The two governments share a dramatically shrinking number of policy positions as Trump pursues a chaotic “America first” policy that has often left British officials bewildered. In July this year, cables critical of the Trump administration from London’s ambassador to the United States, Kim Darroch, leaked to the press. Trump responded with outrage, and the rift deepened. Trump now dominates every high-level discussion at the Foreign Office. One senior U.K. official, who has worked closely with the current U.S. administration, told me he had come to view Trump as a threat to global security as great as China, Russia, and ISIS.

From a series of conversations I had with officials at Downing Street, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence, it is clear that Trump’s presidency has rocked the foundations of the United Kingdom’s relationship with its closest ally. The timing couldn’t be worse. Brexit has badly damaged Britain’s bonds with Europe and lowered its influence around the world. When it needs a strong, reliable relationship with the United States more than ever, the United Kingdom looks across the pond with doubt and uncertainty. 

CHAOS AND CONFUSION

It is not just Trump’s policies that trouble the relationship between the two countries but also the absence of them. Incoherence and impulsivity plague U.S. foreign-policymaking—officials in Whitehall often find that their counterparts in Washington cannot give straight answers to policy questions. “Whether you’re talking to the national security adviser or the head of the CIA, they’ll say, ‘The boss will decide,’ ” one Foreign Office official told me. The personalization of power in Washington, according to this official, has complicated the relationship between the two governments more than either “America first” or U.S. retrenchment has done. 

Initially, the British government did not take the full measure of the Trump administration. Prime Minister Theresa May visited the Trump White House in January 2017, when she was the first world leader to meet Trump after he became president. At that time, the U.S. president expressed his “100 per cent” commitment to NATO, and both the Foreign Office and the prime minister’s staff came away fairly happy. The first warning sign came only four months later, when Trump travelled to Brussels and delivered a blistering verbal attack on NATO allies.

For the Foreign Office, Charlottesville was a turning point.
 

Then came the far-right march in Charlottesville in August 2017. Trump responded equivocally to torch-wielding white nationalists and the counter-protesters who confronted them, claiming that there were “very fine people on both sides.” For the Foreign Office, Charlottesville was a turning point, presenting clear, unavoidable evidence that the United Kingdom’s closest ally was now led by someone willing to defend white nationalists. By the time Trump finally visited the United Kingdom in 2018—he sandwiched the U.K. trip between another chaotic NATO meeting and a bizarre press conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki—even those in government who had previously tried to convince themselves that Trump wasn’t that different from previous presidents had accepted that his presidency was in fact acutely, disturbingly different. 

A WOBBLY STOOL

The relationship—which most officials in the United Kingdom prefer not to call “special”—is, of course, not just a personal connection between president and prime minister. The links between the two countries’ bureaucracies—the Department of State and the Foreign Office, the Department of Defense and the Ministry of Defence, and the two nations’ various intelligence agencies—are arguably stronger than those between any other pair of democratic nations. Many of these links remain tight, but Trump’s rogue nature and Washington’s disarray have strained them. As a senior Ministry of Defence official told me: “More and more the [Department of Defense] is not connected to the White House. Either they can’t do things or they are doing things below the White House radar.”

Unfortunately for the United Kingdom, it desperately needs the United States to be a reliable ally. As the chaos around Brexit rumbles on and as relations with Europe continue to fray, the United Kingdom’s reliance on the United States for both trade and security is only likely to grow. One senior Foreign Office official described the United Kingdom’s post–World War II framework for security and prosperity as a “three-legged stool: the transatlantic relationship, the relationship with Europe, and our own capability. We are suddenly, fundamentally renegotiating two of those legs.” Those renegotiations are taking place at a time when the third leg—the United Kingdom’s own capabilities—has been weakened by a decade of austerity which has seen severe cuts to both the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office.

A weak United Kingdom will struggle to negotiate a fair trade deal with the United States.

Since the Brexit referendum in 2016, tortuous and occasionally angry negotiations with Brussels have badly damaged the U.K. government’s relationships with European leaders. May even went as far as to suggest that EU politicians were interfering in the 2017 U.K. parliamentary elections by leaking accounts of Brexit talks. When current Prime Minister Boris Johnson was foreign secretary, many of his EU counterparts despised him—to the point where the foreign ministers of neither France nor Germany wanted to speak to him.

Brexiteers, including Johnson, tend to be Atlanticists. They have long argued that one of the main benefits of leaving the European Union would be the freedom to make advantageous trade deals on the United Kingdom’s own terms. The prospect of a new formal deal with the United States excites many Brexiteers. But in Whitehall—aside from the more gung-ho Department for International Trade—there is concern that a weakened and undeniably smaller United Kingdom will struggle to negotiate a fair deal with the United States, whose economy is roughly seven times its size.

And while its relationship with its European partners has become clearly more fraught, the United Kingdom has actually sided with Europe against the United States in all major disagreements since Trump became president. Trump pulled the United States out of Paris climate accords in June, 2017: May issued a joint statement with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel reaffirming the United Kingdom’s commitment to tackling climate change. Trump questioned the necessity of NATO in July 2018: May stood firm with European partners. Trump abandoned the Iran nuclear deal in the spring of 2018: May dispatched Johnson to Washington to press Europe’s case for remaining in the deal with Tehran. (Despite his close relationship with Trump, Johnson didn’t actually get an appointment. He had to settle for making his case on Fox News, with the not unreasonable hope that Trump might be watching.) Trump moved the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and the United Kingdom quietly made clear that it would not do the same. These decisions suggest that the United Kingdom has not allowed either the fallout from Brexit or the importance of the U.S. relationship to cloud its judgment—each of these decisions was consistent with British interests and values: a belief in multilateralism, in pragmatism, and in the rules-based order that Trump seems so keen to rip up.

Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab at a pub in Oxshott, United Kingdom in June, 2019 
Pro-Brexit Atlanticists: Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab at a pub in June, 2019
Peter Nicholls / REUTERS

The United Kingdom, however, has no doctrine of siding with Europe against the United States. As an official who was involved in each of the above decisions told me, they were taken on a “case by case” basis. “We looked at our interests and decided that yes, these are better served siding with Europe.” Now that Johnson has replaced May, that calculus might begin to change. Both Johnson and his foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, are pro-Brexit Atlanticists who are far warmer toward Trump than May was. Whether that makes a practical difference remains to be seen—the structural problems of an “America first” president and a chaotic White House are likely to have a far greater impact than any personal relationship. For instance, Downing Street—like the rest of the world—first heard about Trump’s decision this week to pull troops out of northern Syria from the president’s Twitter feed.

YOU WILL NEVER LEAVE

Whoever occupies Downing Street, however, London will continue to prize and to rely on close relations with Washington. That is because the United Kingdom sees a profound and epochal test in China’s dramatic rise, which one official described as the defining challenge of his generation. As a “developed democracy,” in Fraser’s words, the United Kingdom has a clear interest in one side of an emerging bipolarity. China, in Fraser’s view, has challenged the very model of national and international order that the United Kingdom relies upon. And for that, Fraser says, “America is the cornerstone. If we don’t stick together, our ability to have an international society is eroded.” The senior official I spoke to in the Ministry of Defence echoed these concerns from a practical standpoint. “We would be deeply screwed if there wasn’t the United States balancing the rise of China,” he said. “We would be screwed politically, militarily, and we wouldn’t have intelligence reach.” 

“We would be deeply screwed if there wasn’t the United States balancing the rise of China.”

The United Kingdom’s relationship with the United States may be at its lowest ebb, but most in Whitehall cannot see a future without it. It is a relationship that the British foreign policy, military, and intelligence establishment has relied upon for decades. Even when there have been policy disagreements in the past, whether over the Suez crisis in 1956 or the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983, the foundations of the alliance have held firm.

The adjective some officials used to describe the relationship to me was “indispensable,” not “special.” It is through its relationship with the United States that the United Kingdom exercises much of its power on the global stage.The problem with an indispensable relationship is that no matter how badly your partner behaves, you will never leave. 

  • STEVE BLOOMFIELD is the Deputy Editor of Prospect magazine and the winner of the 2019 Orwell Prize for Journalism