How Much Humiliation Can the Special Relationship Take?
Donald Trump is forcing Great Britain to choose between its interests and its dignity.
In 1982, Charles Haughey, then serving as Ireland’s prime minister, described the incident of a double-murderer staying as a house guest of the Irish attorney general as a “bizarre happening, an unprecedented situation, a grotesque situation, an almost unbelievable mischance.” Responding to this, and other scandals befalling the Haughey government, the journalist Conor Cruise O’Brien coined the acronym “GUBU,” the better to summarize the state of Irish public life. Ever since, GUBU — grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre, and unprecedented — has been a shorthand for Irish political malfeasance.
The election of Donald Trump as president is America’s own GUBU moment.
The new normal, it is already clear, is not normal and will not become so anytime soon. That has consequences for the United States but also, unavoidably, for the rest of the world. We are still adjusting to the startling fact that the U.S. president-elect appears determined to govern by tweet. This is novel, though unnervingly so.
On Tuesday morning, for instance, Britons awoke to discover that Trump had offered Theresa May’s government some wholly unwanted advice. To wit: “Many people would like to see @Nigel_Farage represent Great Britain as their Ambassador to the United States. He would do a great job!” Sadly, the identity of these “many people” has not been revealed, but it is reasonable to say none of them work in Downing Street.
By the standards of Trump’s Twitter excesses, this might initially seem a minor kerfuffle, but it remains a revealing one. Like so many of his outbursts, it reveals something worse than his unsuitability for the office, because it reveals he doesn’t even know what he doesn’t know: namely, that casually attempting to interfere with an allied government’s appointment decisions puts him wildly out of line. And worse than even that, there is no suggestion or reason to believe he is interested in acquiring the knowledge required to perform the duties the American people have, in their wisdom, entrusted him with.
Alliances are founded upon shared interests but also upon something else — reliability. It is already apparent that the new U.S. administration will offer little but trouble to its allies, already all too obvious that it cannot be relied upon and that past norms will be treated as inconvenient obstacles of the sort with which Donald Trump will not put up. Normal behavior is for little people; big league people can do what they want. If they smash things while doing so, that’s not their fault, and it will fall to other people to clean up the mess. Doing so will even be good for them.
Trump’s apparent belief that he is entitled to recommend that Nigel Farage — more on him in a moment — should be appointed the United Kingdom’s ambassador to Washington might just be another example of Trumpian carelessness, but it also reveals the extent to which his unpredictability causes problems for even the United States’ closest allies. There’s a reason America’s allies wanted Hillary Clinton to win the election: Whatever her faults may be, you knew what you would get from her.
It is true that the British political class obsesses over the so-called “special relationship” to an often unseemly degree. Barack Obama’s decision to relocate the White House’s bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office to another room spawned an extraordinary quantity of commentary predicated upon the fierce necessity of parsing this apparent “slight” to British honor and the two countries’ shared interests. Much of this was as mortifying as it was mawkish and represented a failure to appreciate that the U.S.-U.K. relationship has historically been based upon common interests more than personal relationships. Which is to say that if those interests remain strong, the alliance remains strong enough to survive cooler personal relationships between the inhabitants of the White House and Downing Street. That has never been more obviously the case than in this new age of Trump. This is the peg upon which the hopes of a stable architecture of international relations now hang.
This supposes, however, that in the broader scheme of international affairs the interests of the United States and the United Kingdom do continue to align. It is hard to imagine a scenario in which the close security and intelligence ties binding the two countries cease being a cornerstone of their defense infrastructure, but in the age of Trump few things can be taken for granted. The president-elect’s attitude toward NATO, for instance, is already causing unease across Europe. And even those Britons who take a jaundiced view of the special nature of the “special relationship” have reason to worry that, on all the international problems that truly matter most, the United States risks becoming a thoroughly unreliable partner. What happens if — or when — the indispensable nation decides it is no longer needed?
Even so, Trump’s willingness to flatter Farage — his tweet follows a meeting between the two men at Trump’s impressively vulgar New York tower — remains remarkable. Then again, perhaps he just knows a huckster when he sees one.
Farage, who has seven times tried without success to be elected to the British Parliament, evidently enjoys basking in the reflected glory of the new president’s approval. Like Trump, Farage enjoys slithering from television studio to television studio imagining himself to be the voice of the people. This obscures the inconvenient fact that the people have a commendably low opinion of the leader of the UK Independence Party. Farage imagines himself as some kind of bridge between May’s government and the new American administration; mercifully, May disagrees. If Farage were such a bridge, it would be another bridge to nowhere. (Admittedly, there is one sense in which the role of British ambassador to Washington would suit Farage. Sir Christopher Meyer, who held the post from 1997 to 2003, claimed in his memoirs that Tony Blair’s chief of staff sent him off with the instruction “to get up the arse of the White House and stay there.” Farage, it is clear, imagines a comparable anatomical future for himself.)
In truth, the Trump-Farage brouhaha is an unwelcome distraction for May. Her government is trapped between a deep skepticism about Trump and the need to make the best of whatever president happens to occupy the Oval Office. Moreover, Britain’s post-Brexit interests lie in negotiating trade deals with its leading commercial counterparts — including, prominently, the United States. This necessarily weakens the U.K.’s strategic position vis a vis the White House. The official line on Trump’s presidency, therefore, amounts to little more than one part “let’s wait and see” and two parts “let’s hope for the best.”
But it is already clear that, as the old adage has it, when you sup with the devil, you’d best use a long spoon. May would be well-advised to seek out the longest spoon she can find. Verify, then trust, is the sensible approach to this administration.
Because if the overture to Trump’s presidency has been grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre, and unprecedented, you ain’t seen nothing yet. This is a GUBU presidency before it has even begun.
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