Elephants in the Room

Donald Trump Is Single-Handedly Wrecking the Special Relationship

America has no greater friend than Britain. Or had.

Preparations ahead of President Barack Obama's visit to London on May 23, 2011. (Oli Scarff/Getty Images)
Preparations ahead of President Barack Obama's visit to London on May 23, 2011. (Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

There are only two countries in the world whose citizens have fought alongside American troops in every single war since World War I: Britain and Australia. No other American ally, friend, or partner can make that claim. Not surprisingly, the “special relationship” with Britain has been of the closest cooperation and trust that could ever take place between two independent nations.

Volumes upon volumes have been written about the ties between Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt; a new movie only underscores the close connections between the greatest Briton who ever lived and his American partners, even when they bitterly disagreed. Similarly, there is a burgeoning literature that addresses the very close personal ties between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The two shared a commitment to democracy and free markets that was both deep and genuine. It should therefore come as no surprise that it was the United States, specifically the Pentagon, that rushed to Britain’s aid during the Falklands War. I should know; I was personally responsible for ensuring that London received every bit of kit it felt it needed to prosecute the war, even if that meant running down our own stocks.

More recently, it was Britain that stood shoulder to shoulder with the United States not only in the aftermath of 9/11 — other countries did the same — but in launching and prosecuting Operation Iraqi Freedom. Whatever one thinks of that war, or of Tony Blair’s decision to throw his country fully behind the operation, one must contrast Britain’s response with those of America’s other major European allies: Germany, France, and Canada all deliberately stood on the sidelines; at times their pronouncements sounded no different from those of Russia and China.

Even when relations between Washington and London were at low ebb, due to Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s opposition to the Vietnam War, Britain continued surreptitiously to support the U.S. war effort. Britain provided regional intelligence (as the United States did during the Falklands War), supplied military hardware through back channels, and offered paid training in jungle warfare to U.S. Special Forces. Moreover, although Britain refused to commit land forces to that war, some 2,000 soldiers resigned from the British Army and served in the Australian or New Zealand units that were fighting alongside the Americans. It has also been reported that U.S. bombers took off from a British air base in Thailand to conduct bombing raids over Laos. Finally, British ships supported U.S. commando river missions into Cambodia. The special relationship simply trumped politics.

Britain and America have shared intelligence for decades. They have shared strategic nuclear secrets and have worked together on strategic programs; the British deterrent even employs America’s Trident missiles. Britain and America share space on Ascension Island; the United States has complete use of Wideawake airfield there. Similarly, the United States has free rein at Diego Garcia, which is a British possession. And when all of Europe refused to have anything to do with missile defense, Britain quietly signed an agreement (I was the American signatory) that opened the door for the possibility of its hosting a missile defense radar.

Now comes President Trump to wreck this decades-old relationship. It is bad enough that he retweeted anti-Muslim videos pushed by British extremists. It is more damaging that Trump seems to gloat over the fact that Britain has suffered from terrorist attacks while America has not. Far worse yet is his unconscionable personal attack on Theresa May. Whatever her political troubles, she continues to be a staunch supporter of her country’s intimate ties to the United States. She even is prepared — at least as of the time of writing — to welcome Trump on a state visit to Britain.

It is true that Britain is not the power it once was. Its steady decline in military power, the result of years of budget cuts, have certainly lessened Britain’s importance as a military partner. London needs to take note. Nevertheless, in all other respects Britain remains America’s most reliable ally west of Australia. Donald Trump has stated that too many allies are free-riders. But Britain is not one of them. His treatment of that country and its leader is nothing short of despicable. He owes the United Kingdom and Theresa May a personal apology.

Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.

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