In Trump era, US-UK 'special relationship' faces – and causes – new trials

President Trump is deeply unpopular in Britain, and the multiple diplomatic flareups on his watch have put a unique strain on relations with Britain and Prime Minister Theresa May. But the 'special relationship' also limits how May can respond.

John Macdougall/Reuters
US President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May wait at the start of a session of a Group of 20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7.

When a report came out Sunday claiming that President Trump's first official visit to Britain had finally been scheduled for late February, it didn't take long for the backlash to come.

Within minutes of The Sunday Times article putting a date – Feb. 26 to 27 – to the controversial visit, activists vowed to organize the biggest protest in British history to greet Mr. Trump. Thousands of Britons – many still angry about Trump’s retweeting last week of anti-Muslim videos published by Britain First, an extreme far-right group – have already pledged to attend, despite the lack of official confirmation of the date.

The controversy is hardly the first since Trump took office to have rocked the so-called “special relationship” between Britain and the United States. Things seemed to start well; British Prime Minister Theresa May was the first world leader to visit the president in January. But since then, the Trump administration has tested relations with one of Washington's oldest allies in a series of missteps, outbursts, and spats – leading to the president's deep unpopularity today among Britons.

Experts say the special relationship is likely to endure due to its importance to both countries. But the strains upon on it will likely keep Mrs. May in particular in a bind, as she is forced to maintain US ties even as doing so erodes the support she receives from the anti-Trump public at home.

“These flashpoints where [Trump] does something completely out of step with Western values are likely to continue,” says Brian Klaas, a fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics. “And Theresa May will have to face them and the public’s reaction again and again for the next few years, if they both remain in office.”

A tested relationship

Trump and his administration have, wittingly or not, triggered multiple diplomatic flare-ups with Britain. In March, then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer cited at a White House briefing an unsubstantiated allegation that British intelligence services had tapped Trump Tower on behalf of President Obama during the presidential election. The accusation infuriated British officials, and drew a rare public comment from Britain's GCHQ intelligence service, which called the claim “utterly ridiculous.”

In the aftermath of the June 2017 terrorist attack on London Bridge, Trump publicly berated London Mayor Sadiq Khan on Twitter over Mr. Khan's response to the city’s terror attacks. Trump's tweets, which took Khan's response out of context and were made during a period when most world leaders were offering statements of support to London, angered many Britons for both their apparent attempt at point-scoring and their ill-considered timing.

There have also been points of tension. Canadian aeronautics manufacturer and major Belfast employer Bombardier, following a complaint by US company Boeing, was hit by the US with a 300 percent import tax. May personally lobbied Trump to step in, as the decision put more than 1,000 jobs in Belfast at risk, but her efforts failed, earning her criticism from the Labour party for her “lack of negotiating skills.” Trump’s resistance to certifying the Iran nuclear deal also irked Britain. Most recently, Trump's Britain First retweets brought condemnations from across British society, including from May herself.

And US-UK relations would “no doubt” be even worse, says Leslie Vinjamuri, an associate fellow in the US and the Americas program at international affairs think tank Chatham House, if not for Brexit, which has both put her in a weak position on the international stage, and also given her plenty of distraction. “Theresa May has been constrained because her primary focus has been negotiating with the European Union on some really tough issues,” says Dr. Vinjamuri.

But Trump's impact on the relationship goes much deeper than these public spats, says Tim Oliver, an associate at foreign policy think tank LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics. As well as ensuring the continued commitment of the US to defend Britain and Europe, the relationship was built on the pursuit of common goals in terms of economics, politics, and security on a broader global level. These broad goals, sometimes referred to as a liberal internationalist agenda, include the commitment to free trade, for example.

“When Mr. Trump got elected, he was very hostile to NATO, very suspicious of American commitments, and very protectionist,” Dr. Oliver says. “From the start, therefore, he seemed to challenge the very strategic rationale for Britain's close relationship with the United States.”

Constraints for May

But on the fundamental ways the two countries cooperate – nuclear weapons, intelligence, and special forces – they remain largely on the same page. Oliver says: “These core shared interests have traditionally been protected by the vagaries and fallings out between prime ministers and presidents as both sides benefit so much from it.”

He adds: “Mr. Trump, however, has been pushing this to its limit.”

And it poses a particular challenge to May, as one leader of the side currently more likely to try to maintain the relationship. In the British press and in Parliament, May has been accused of accepting the president’s behavior purely for a trade deal with Britain. The public is much less conciliatory: The Pew Research Center found that 75 percent of the Britons had “no confidence” in Trump to do the right thing when it comes to world affairs. An earlier poll by Opinium found that half of the British public think he is “dangerous.”

May is in a “lose-lose situation” Vinjamuri says, and Trump's upcoming visit could be a real test. She says: “If she calls [the visit] off over the controversy, then she has laid down a very clear marker with her most important ally. But if she goes ahead she is going to have a lot of unrest on the streets at a time when she is in a very weak position.”

Dr. Klaas agrees. “Both parties know a state visit is going to spark immense protests, and that could be very damaging and embarrassing to Mr. Trump because he cares about perception and appearances. But that encapsulates the problem because Mrs. May is dealing with the fact she has to have a close relationship with a partner that the British public does not want her to have a close relationship with.”

But other factors are involved in sustaining the relationship. “Donald Trump is not the same as the US government,” Klaas says. “He is in charge of one branch of three and he is also out of step with his statements with the overwhelming majority of the government establishment, both in terms of foreign policy and basic values.”

“You can’t ignore the president,” Klaas adds, “but overall he won’t destroy the special relationship.”

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