Brexit Is Killing the Special Relationship
Britain’s partnership with the United States always depended on its usefulness—and that’s starting to fall off a cliff.
A year after his first visit, which saw the breach of royal protocol, a spat with the British press, and a blimp of a baby in a diaper, U.S. President Donald Trump will be returning to the United Kingdom this summer. Last week’s announcement drew immediate outrage from the British public, of which nearly 70 percent disapproves of the president, as well as in the British Parliament, which the president is currently banned from addressing. In the United States, it did not land any lighter as Trump took to Twitter the next day to accuse British intelligence services of spying on him.
The cracks in the special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom are clear. Although they may start with the president’s personality, they do not end there. Domestic turbulence in both countries and the decline of the Anglo-American order have put the relationship—and the era it helped define—on the outs.
The past month has made this hard to miss. It began with a trip by Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, to London and her intervention into Brexit two weeks ago on the topic of its central crisis: the Irish border. On the one hand, the Good Friday Agreement demands that the border remain open. On the other, Brexit demands new regulations and customs checks between the Republic of Ireland (the EU) and Northern Ireland (the U.K.) and a hard border to enforce them. It’s a problem no one knows how to solve, leading Britain’s Brexiteers—including many members of the governing Conservative Party—to dismiss it. Pelosi, however, objected and put the greatest post-Brexit promise on the line: “If there were any weakening of the Good Friday accords,” she said, “there would be no chance whatsoever, a nonstarter, for a U.S.-U.K. trade agreement.”
In the week that followed, the situation did not much improve. A leak to the Telegraph from Britain’s National Security Council revealed plans for controversial cooperation on 5G infrastructure with Huawei, a Chinese technology company that the United States has accused of espionage and whose chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, the country is trying to put behind bars. The issue here was subtle yet far more severe. By allowing Huawei to develop Britain’s 5G infrastructure, the country is voluntarily jeopardizing its status as the United States’ closest intelligence-sharing partner and a member of the all-important Five Eyes. Following the news, Robert Strayer, the diplomat in charge of Washington’s anti-Huawei campaign, accused the British of handing China a “loaded gun” and stated that the United States would have to “reassess” its intelligence-sharing relationship with the U.K. On Wednesday, May terminated defense minister Gavin Williamson over the leak, but the underlying policy responsible for tension with Washington remains.
Today, as a growing list of British lawmakers plans to boycott Trump’s visit, as the most powerful Democrat in Washington threatens to block a U.S.-U.K. trade agreement, and as Britain pivots to China for its strategic technology, the political, economic, and military relations of the United States and the United Kingdom have never looked worse. How did we get here?
“I just can’t see what role the British have to play in American eyes,” said Christopher Coker, a professor at the London School of Economics and the author of Twilight of the West, among other books on the topic. “What can we bring to the table?”
The answer to that question was once obvious. In World War I and II, Britain brought to the table the world’s strongest navy. In the Cold War, it brought a global imperial presence and a wealth of diplomatic connections. Immediately after the Cold War, it brought an understanding of counterinsurgency that the United States sorely lacked—as had previously been made clear by the British success in Malaya versus the American failure in Vietnam.
But that didn’t mean the relationship was always easy. Indeed, the special relationship, a term that gained currency with Prime Minister Winston Churchill, himself the son of an American mother, began quite poorly. “In the summer of 1942, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were arguing for abandoning the British and having a ‘Pacific First’ strategy,” said Kori Schake, the deputy director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and author of Safe Passage: The Transition From British to American Hegemony. Ultimately, it was only President Franklin D. Roosevelt who stepped in and stepped up for the U.K. “But it wasn’t because they were pals,” Schake added.
The rocky relationship between the United States, the United Kingdom, and their leaders—“Churchill refused to go to Roosevelt’s funeral,” Coker pointed out—would come to a head a decade later, as the United States was writing the rules of its postwar order and the United Kingdom was clinging onto its colonies. Their interests quickly diverged, and in 1956 President Dwight D. Eisenhower threatened to bankrupt Britain if it attempted to reconquer the Suez Canal. Even today, half a century later, the Suez crisis is first and foremost in the British memory of humiliations—a recurring reference in Brexit debates.
Nevertheless, the 20th century was still the Anglo-American century, as the British in particular like to call it, and nothing would ultimately come between its guardians. When the Cold War came to an end, and the postwar liberal system began to take shape, the airtight alliance grew even tighter. “We were the only ones who could do war with the Americans, and partnerships are very important to presidents,” Coker said.
From the first Gulf War through the second, the special relationship was as special as it had ever been. In those years, Prime Minister John Major committed an armored division to the Gulf War and put it under President George H.W. Bush’s command. Their successors, Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bill Clinton, would walk hand in hand into Kosovo. And not long after that, Blair stood bravely—if inadvisably—by President George W. Bush’s side in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Ultimately, however, that special decade of the special relationship proved to be equal parts heyday and mayday: It was the closest the countries had ever been and yet a stern warning that things would not last. This became clear in Kosovo in 1998, when the United States was forced to pick up the slack of its less powerful partners and conduct two-thirds of all sorties. Less than a decade later, British involvement in Iraq didn’t prove any more promising. Although the British notably succeeded in 2003 in taking Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city at the time, they spectacularly failed in holding it. “It was humiliating,” John Chilcot, the chair of Parliament’s Iraq inquiry, would later say. His report shocked the country with details of how British forces, badly battered by insurgents, ultimately lost Basra to ragtag militias in just a few short years. Shortly after that, U.S. Marines rushed to reinforce British soldiers in Helmand province in Afghanistan, where a similar disaster was awaiting the underprepared and underresourced British forces.
Since then, the decline of Britain’s strategic value and the rise of U.S. unilateralism have been exacerbated in both countries by a growth of populism. The new divisions and distractions have not made the relationship any better. For the United States, Trump’s loss of interest in the liberal world order has meant a loss of interest in Britain. “This is all we have,” Coker said. “If Trump is not interested in it, why should he be interested in Britain?”
For the U.K., the country’s withdrawal from the EU has spelled a withdrawal from global prominence. “They’re talking vacuously about a ‘Global Britain’ instead of showing how good Britain can be, by setting norms and working through institutions,” Schake said. As the Huawei case makes clear, Britain’s loss of global and regional clout is beginning to make it desperate. “Now that we’re about to be out of the EU, we have to make our own bed,” Coker added. “And the Chinese are going to get in it.”
There’s also a chance, however, that the decline of the Anglo-American order will prove to be just what Anglo-American relations needs. “If China continues to rise,” Schake said promisingly, if a bit unnervingly, “we will all be reminded why we’re close friends.”