All relationships face stresses and strains, no matter how long they’ve lasted and how important they are. That’s true in world affairs just as much as in other spheres of life: personalities clash, tensions mount, and once-firm bonds become stretched to breaking point.
That, at any rate, is what is happening on the global stage right now. While the UK and the US enjoy their ‘special relationship’, the US is also being wooed by France; and this week the French President is visiting the Trump White House on a charm offensive. Meanwhile, the British government, however, is still looking at the phone and waiting for Trump to ring. There is no pending reciprocal visit; indeed, the special relationship looks somewhat mundane and prosaic against the blossoming association between France and the US.
In part, this is because Emmanuel Macron has played his hand with Trump more convincingly than Theresa May. Taking a pragmatic approach to the personality-driven US President, Macron has forged a close personal relationship with him, resulting in warmer Franco-American relations. The UK, however, has been less willing to be lured in by Trump.
The basic fact of the matter is that the UK is losing out to its Gallic rival for power and influence. This is not new: Hollande and Obama drew the US and France closer together; Macron has simply taken it to the next level.
France becoming the US’s key strategic partner in Europe would be detrimental for the UK at any time, but particularly so now. There are strong indications Russia has poisoned two people on UK soil, and the US, UK and France are intervening in the Syrian conflict in response to the apparent use of chemical weapons in Douma by Kremlin-backed Assad. Tensions are therefore mounting on the geopolitical stage, and a possible escalation is looming.
And yet, the UK is being gradually frozen out. What can May and Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, do?
Hollande and Obama drew the US and France closer together; Macron has simply taken it to the next level
First, they need to cement the UK’s close partnership with France, as well as other European allies – no mean feat as it exits the Union. They need to build on a common understanding of the threats both countries face, and recognise that cooperation is of mutual interest – especially at a time when Trump is forging a more protectionist and isolationist path for the US. That’s precisely why the Policy Institute at King’s College London is exploring how to restructure and reinvigorate this partnership, particularly in the key areas of defence and security.
Second, as the US slowly turns away toward the East, retreats from the world stage, and leaves a Trump-shaped hole in the leadership of Nato, the UK needs to step up and fill this gap. The UK needs to show genuine leadership in the defence and security community through Nato, and to improve how it cooperates with the EU. This has been an intricate and intransigent problem for the UK for decades, but after Brexit, Nato and the EU will share 21 member countries: showing leadership in one will require co-operation with the other.
A key inflection point here will be holding on to the no. 2 position in Nato in Europe, the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe. There is scepticism over whether the UK will be able to retain the post after Brexit, but Britain has scope to throw its weight around: it has the strongest defence assets and capabilities in Europe, bar France; vast experience of military operations; far diplomatic reach; and a large domestic defence industry. The UK can – and should – demonstrate true leadership in NATO here, as well as ensuring channels through which it can effectively cooperate with the EU.
Third, the UK needs to solve a whole host of unresolved challenges – and fast. There are hugely important issues over how to access funds for defence R&D, how to conduct joint military actions in an EU context – such as counter-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia – and how to keep sharing intelligence to disrupt terrorist networks. These questions are currently unanswered – and without answers, the UK will lose its already slippery foothold on the world stage.
While the bond between the UK and the US will endure long after the current administration, the UK will have to acknowledge that, for now, with Macron leading France, it is not an exclusive transatlantic relationship.
Armida van Rij is a researcher in security and defence policy at the Policy Institute at King’s College London.