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12 July 2019

Financial Times: US-UK relations: strains in the ‘greatest alliance’

The Darroch affair has made Britain look like a supplicant — the latest example of appearing vulnerable abroad, writes Gideon Rachman.

[...] the US president delivered an unprecedented blow to the “special relationship” between the US and the UK that effectively forced Kim Darroch, the British ambassador to Washington, out of his job. 

The shock of seeing a British ambassador denounced by a US president as a “pompous fool” and made persona non grata by the White House will reverberate for a long time. Thomas Wright, head of the Center on the US and Europe at the Brookings Institution in Washington, believes that US-UK relations have reached a “postwar low”. [...] 

But while there may be no real strategic origins to this dispute, it has enormous strategic implications for the UK. Boris Johnson, who is almost certain to be the new leader of the Conservative party and Britain’s prime minister by the end of this month, has an approach to the world that is built around the special relationship.  [...] 

Mr Johnson’s willingness to appease the White House points to how lopsided the special relationship has become — with Britain looking more like a supplicant than a partner of the US. The prime minister-in-waiting’s stance towards the Trump administration is dictated by his determination to take Britain out of the EU by October 31 — “do or die”. With a disorderly rupture in economic and diplomatic relations with the EU looming, Mr Johnson evidently believes that he simply cannot afford to antagonise the US government as well.

For hard Brexiters, such as Mr Johnson, the great benefit of leaving the EU’s single market and customs union is that it will free Britain to make new trade deals around the world — and a deal with the US is the biggest prize of all. On his recent visit to the UK, Mr Trump dangled the prospect of a “phenomenal” new trade deal with America, which would only become possible once Britain had left the EU.

However, Mr Trump’s volatility, his “America First” nationalism and his treatment of the ambassador should act as a loud alarm bell for UK negotiators.  [...] 

“There are no special relationships with Trump’s America,” says Jeremy Shapiro, a former US state department official who is now head of research at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Every relationship is transactional, entirely subject to the president’s domestic political needs or simply to his mood . . . A Britain led by Boris Johnson may pursue the fantasy that appeals to Trump’s ego, or America’s historic bond will buy Britain some special consideration. But Mr Johnson will soon find out that Mr Trump has no friends and no loyalty.” [...] 

But one lesson of the Darroch affair is that the British can no longer make any safe assumptions about the Trump administration’s behaviour. For almost 50 years, British foreign policy has been based on the twin pillars of a special relationship with the US and membership of the EU. Without those pillars securely in place, the world looks a much more dangerous place for Britain.

Full article on Financial Times (subscription required)



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