How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Boris Johnson, the United Kingdom’s scruffy, grandiloquent, and often bumbling new prime minister, has worked hard to fashion himself after Winston Churchill. In his speeches, Johnson often channels his “inner Churchill” and waxes nostalgic for Britain’s glorious past. He even sees himself as waging a heroic struggle against a European super-state, as Churchill did as Britain’s wartime prime minister.
Johnson will surely invoke another Churchillian precedent as he tries to steer his country away from the European Union and toward a closer bond with the United States. Churchill coined the term “special relationship” to described London’s privileged ties with Washington, and with Brexit approaching, Johnson will be similarly keen to capitalize on access to Washington.
Johnson seems to benefit in this endeavor from his chemistry with U.S. President Donald Trump, who can clearly see that the new British leader is different than his predecessor. Where Theresa May was prim and proper, Johnson is outlandish and mop-topped. Where May was cautious and reserved, Johnson is bold and flamboyant. Where May was a powerful woman, Johnson is most certainly a man. All this stands Johnson in good stead with Trump, who has rather ungrammatically praised him as “Britain Trump.”
Where Theresa May was prim and proper, Johnson is outlandish and mop-topped. Where May was cautious and reserved, Johnson is bold and flamboyant.
For many commentators, Trump’s affinity for Johnson means the two have an opportunity to rekindle the moribund special relationship, which today mostly lives on as a polite talking point in U.S.-U.K. press conferences. Yet, beyond the kind words, there is precious little evidence that Washington sees that relationship as special. There is even less reason to expect that the bromance between Johnson and Trump will turn things around.
Johnson’s predecessor found this out the hard way. When Trump took office in 2017, May probably believed that his support for Brexit would help her steer her country out of the European Union; Backing from the U.S. president could assure a nervous British population that, in leaving its European home, it would be welcomed back to a revitalized Anglosphere. But despite her efforts to ingratiate herself, Trump repeatedly humiliated May and undermined her position in British domestic politics.
Indeed, Trump has proved time and again that personal relationships or historic alliances count for little in policy terms. Just ask Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, who has flattered Trump at every turn yet has won little more than a public questioning of the value of the U.S.-Japanese defense alliance. Or President Emmanuel Macron of France, whose initial bromance with Trump failed to inspire the U.S. president to stay in the Paris climate agreement or the Iran nuclear deal. Loyalty for Trump is a one-way street.
A more apt term for Johnson’s transatlantic policy is neo-poodleism. At the time of the 2003 Iraq war, critics often accused British Prime Minister Tony Blair of acting like George W. Bush’s poodle, following the U.S. president into a war out of blind loyalty. Blair, however, was also acting from genuine conviction, and in the process secured a strong U.S.-U.K. relationship.
The Trump-Johnson dynamic will be quite different. Neo-poodleism will share with its predecessor the appearance of British subservience. But it will require even greater obedience and will not be tempered by any sort of ideological conviction on the part of Boris Johnson. Worse, it is unlikely to result in closer U.S.-British relations in the long term.
Loyalty for Trump is a one-way street.
Such a dynamic is not great for the United Kingdom, but Johnson’s hard-line Brexit policy has left him with few options. In the past, the United Kingdom sought to maintain good relations with both its European partners and the United States, in part to be able to maneuver between them. Previous British leaders marketed themselves as the go-betweens that could bring other European governments on board with U.S. policy, so long as Washington showed a little flexibility. This strategy preserved space for independent British policy even at the height of Blairite poodleism. Theresa May continued this policy, Brexit proceedings notwithstanding, and often sided with Europe in transatlantic disputes over issues such as the Iran nuclear deal or the decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
Johnson’s negotiating stance on Brexit has essentially burned the United Kingdom’s final bridges with Europe. His attempt to blackmail the EU with the threat of a no-deal exit has deeply soured both European officials and publics on the United Kingdom. A recent poll by the German state broadcaster ARD shows that only 37 percent of Germans consider the United Kingdom a trustworthy partner, down 17 points since February. A full 67 percent of Germans expect the relationship to deteriorate further under Johnson.
Without the Europeans to fall back on, Johnson will bring little to the negotiating table with the United States. Appeals to Trump on the basis on historic ties or shared values may make for nice press conferences, but they will have little impact on U.S. policy. As Lawrence Summers, the former U.S. treasury secretary, told the BBC earlier this week, “Britain has no leverage, Britain is desperate … it needs an agreement very soon. When you have a desperate partner, that’s when you strike the hardest bargain.” Johnson’s weak negotiating position means that he will have to settle for neo-poodleism with all its diplomatic, geopolitical, and economic consequences.
Diplomatically, neo-poodleism will demand constant flattery both public and private. Trump’s defenestration via Twitter of Kim Darroch, the United Kingdom’s respected ambassador to Washington, for the sin of honesty in diplomatic cables sent a message: the United Kingdom is in no position to criticize the U.S. president. Johnson’s decision, in defiance of the entire British diplomatic establishment, to abet this national humiliation and throw Darroch under the bus shows that he already understands how neo-poodlistic diplomacy works. Don’t expect Johnson’s government to uphold the May cabinet’s tradition of principled opposition to Trump’s periodic racism and xenophobia.
On security issues, the toll on British policy will be even greater. May’s most significant divergence from the U.S. policy was on the Iran nuclear deal. She refused to give up on the deal or to join the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. Instead, she worked with her European partners to establish a new financial mechanism, Instex, to promote trade with Iran beyond the reach of U.S. secondary sanctions.
Neo-poodleism will force politically difficult, even humiliating, compromises on the British government across the board.
After Iran seized a British-flagged oil tanker, one of May’s last acts in office was to push for a naval force near the Persian Gulf under European rather than U.S. leadership. But since Johnson took office, the European-led initiative seems to have withered away. Instead, the United States asked the United Kingdom, France, and Germany to join its own operation. An isolated United Kingdom could not say no and joined the U.S.-led operation, even as its erstwhile European partners refused. Fairly soon, particularly with continued Iranian aggression against British interests, the United Kingdom’s support for the Iranian nuclear deal should similarly wither away.
But it is on the economic front that neo-poodleism will exact its greatest price on Boris Johnson’s government. A central feature of Johnson’s “no-deal” bravado is the idea that, once the United Kingdom leaves the EU, a free-trade deal with the United States will make up for the loss of access to the European single market. Trump has encouraged this notion, making a commitment soon after Johnson took office to deliver “an ambitious free trade agreement” with negotiations starting “as soon as possible after the UK leaves the EU.”
Unfortunately, a closer look at the United States Trade Representative’s official negotiating principles for a U.S.-British free trade pact reveals that it is very much an “America first” effort. Its clear intent is to gain U.S. access to the British agricultural and pharmaceutical markets without any reciprocal concessions. Woody Johnson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, confirmed this impression earlier this year, saying London was trapped in a “museum of agriculture.” To get a trade deal, the ambassador wrote, the United Kingdom would have to accept U.S. wares such as chlorinated chickens and genetically modified organisms. Whatever the scientific merits of those products, their introduction will not go down well in British domestic politics. Efforts to bring U.S. drug prices to the United Kingdom’s sacred National Health Service will fare even worse.
Neo-poodleism will force politically difficult, even humiliating, compromises on the British government across the board. But those compromises seem far away. Right now, Johnson’s priority is to complete the Brexit process by the deadline of October 31. He needs the United States and seems uninterested in the cost that the United Kingdom’s diplomatic isolation from its traditional European partners will entail.
In the longer term, however, neo-poodleism will create serious problems for U.S.-British relations. Already, 67 percent of the British public have a negative opinion of Trump. No other world leader scores worse—not even Russian President Vladimir Putin, who in 2018 ordered a chemical weapons attack on British soil. If the United Kingdom must fight in the United States’ war with Iran, accept low U.S. food-quality standards, and pay high U.S. drug prices, Trump’s unpopularity in the United Kingdom will reach new heights. At that point, the relationship will not feel very special.
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