"Getting along" may now be the best Britain can hope forby Emily Stacey / November 25, 2016 / Leave a comment
President-Elect Donald Trump and Vice President-Elect Mike Pence ©Carolyn Kaster/AP/Press Association Images There have been reports that Donald Trump will be invited to meet the Queen next year, a move Theresa May would surely use to strengthen the Anglo-American “special relationship.” It is in need of strengthening. Not long after the Brexit referendum I was in a coffee shop in Washington DC and heads turned at the realisation that I was a Brit. The staff were quick to offer a tea on the house, “If the pound was stronger…” they sympathised, “we’d accept your dollar.” I got the impression that they no longer thought of the UK as a global power. And the special relationship, the waiter believed, died well back in the 1980s. This view was confirmed by George Will, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post commentator. “The UK was far more important to the US back in 1975—the special relationship was still real back then,” he told me. Revealingly, he added that many Americans wouldn’t even have known who David Cameron was, despite the former prime minister’s frequent travels abroad. The UK was a strong ally back when the United States needed strength post-1945. But the need for such support in today’s world has since dissipated. Barely a Labour leader has been taken seriously in Washington since Tony Blair, I was told—and he was the last British leader who was perceived as “presidential.” Although Britain and the US maintain a co-operative alliance, once courtesies are set aside it is clear that the UK, once a key voice in international negotiations, is now of little significance to Washington’s political agenda. Anglo-American relations were perhaps at their closest during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, as a result of her admiration for Ronald Reagan. Thatcher fell for Reagan’s charm and their personal chemistry undoubtedly helped strengthen transatlantic ties during the 1980s. Sharing a similar ideology, together they offered a new political rhetoric that shaped American Republicans as well as British Conservatives. This was a period of progress for the alliance given that relations between Thatcher and Reagan’s predecessor, Jimmy Carter, had been far from harmonious. Words including “dogmatic,” “overbearing” and “imperious,” have been used by members of Carter’s administration to describe their dealings with Thatcher. However, Walter Mondale, Carter’s vice-president, has said that the special relationship largely remained in place, despite the tensions: “Britain was always seen as a special ally, as it is today, even during tough times. Democratic, steeped in a shared culture and history, we worked together on most things.” Another Washington figure who can shed light on the state of the alliance is Stuart Butler, a Senior Fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institute. Butler described the special relationship of old as “a counterculture of ideas” that once worked effectively for both countries: “From 1965 until the end of the Heath years there was a flow of policy ideas coming from the US—privatisation, monetarianism—it was a time that redefined ideas on individual liberty and freedoms.” Despite the to-ing and fro-ing of policy, he thought that even back in the late 1970s the US “had little understanding of the inner dynamics of the UK,” suggesting that although Britain was seen as a useful ally, the nature of our political system was irrelevant when it came to designing American policy. I discovered similar sentiments when I travelled to New York. Again, in light of the pound’s demise, I was offered one or two freebies—a cocktail in a downtown jazz bar and a brownie from a Starbucks on Lexington Avenue—I was clearly seen as the poor relation. The popular opinion was that the UK was becoming a warning to American policy makers even before it had voted to leave Europe. And Americans were not impressed by Theresa May’s statement that “Brexit means Brexit.” “But what does it mean?” asked an exasperated US journalist soon after the Conservative Party conference. “It means nothing…she’s just buying time,” I insisted. “Sure she is,” he replied, unconvinced. As we wait to see how Brexit will unfold, Westminster needs to address the fact that Britain’s status on the world stage has declined. Despite President Barack Obama’s warning that outside of the EU Britain would go “to the back of the queue” in any future trade deal, the reality has not been absorbed by No 10. In order to restore British influence internationally, May has no option but to enhance our relationship with the US. But this may be hard given its choice of new president. In his victory speech, Donald Trump reassured the world: “We will get along with all other nations willing to get along with us.” Asking for a special relationship will probably be pushing it. It may well be that simply “getting along” with America is the best we can hope for.