Donald Trump may at least – and inadvertently – have liberated Anglo-American relations from the curse of ‘the special relationship’ (SR). For that, if nothing else, those who attach high importance to the friendship, shared cultural hinterland and personal connections that bind the two countries should be grateful.
The ‘SR’ is not much more than a monument to the idleness and ignorance of British journalists and their craven dependence on ‘the cuttings’ (or their digital equivalent) for inspiration when stories needs to be written. This cliché has for half a century done duty for serious thought or inquiry about the subject, directing the knee-jerk reflexes of headline-writers and the space-filling ramblings of the hacks.
Any British ambassador in Washington can only groan inwardly every time it is recycled by ‘visiting firemen’ anxious to gratify their news editors back in London. It makes most Americans wince, the nice ones politely, others more openly. It constrains British politicians to scrape the diplomatic barrel in search of some new genuflection to this idol.
It is a false God. The relationship between Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt was literally vital when Britain could well have lost World War II. The sharing of intelligence then and subsequently was indeed a special connection. The US and Royal Navies long had their own unique rapport.
Some presidents and prime ministers got on well – Kennedy and Macmillan, Callaghan and Carter, Thatcher and Reagan, Major and Bush Sr, George W. and Blair. Others – Eisenhower and Eden, Johnson and Wilson, Nixon and Heath, Clinton and Blair, Obama and Cameron – did not.
The State Department and the Foreign Office have seldom been close, ever since the Dulles brothers tilted to Germany as their preferred partner in Europe and the FO decided that post-Suez Britain needed to join the EU.
The Treasuries and the defence/defense departments have had more natural affinity and have often collaborated fruitfully.
But that is all, for the moment, in the past. Relations with the Trump, White House are strained, not least because his whole political identity is rebarbative to almost all in Britain, leaders and led. Waiting for four, maybe eight, years holding one’s breath is not much of policy for what has hitherto and for good reasons been Britain’s most important relationship.
In normal times it requires close attention, constant nurturing and practical collaboration focused on sustaining the core of the Atlantic partnership that has thrice saved Europe from its own evil genii of aggression and tyranny, in two world wars and in the face of Soviet expansionism in and after the late 1940s. What it has never benefitted from is endlessly repeated incantations of the empty SR slogan, which only gets in the way of hard work on today’s real agenda.
The Trump saga has blown all that away. If he set foot in Britain he would be insulted. He may hold Theresa May’s hand in the rose garden; but one must wonder what would happen if she called on the ‘hotline’.
Serious issues lie beneath the surface. Callaghan had a valuable agreement with Carter about supplying Britain with the next generation of Britain’s ‘independent’ nuclear missiles. That has broadly survived the next forty years; but whom knows what Trump would decide?
Worse still the whole Atlantic alliance is weak, the two sides drifting apart, as I warned in my valedictory despatch from Washington in 1979, chiefly because of ‘Europe’s’ dangerous hankering after great power status separate from the US.
This foolish delusion can only be reinforced by Donald Trump’s antics, which create an opportunity for the anti-American euro-nationalists to argue that Athleticism is obsolete and that Europe should ‘go it alone’ – ‘Europe first’, as I warned in my book with Michael Stewart Apocalypse 2000 in 1987.
What Britain and Europe need is a strong collaborative relationship with a United States that believes in the post-1945 principles that have given both sides an extraordinary long run of comparative peace and high prosperity. The politics of Donald Trump and the Bonapartists in Europe are ill-suited to that sensible hope.
Peter Jay is a former British ambassador to the United States