Trump’s Jekyll and Hyde Special Relationship with the UK
In the run-up to the 2020 US presidential election, it is time to reflect on the impact of Trump's presidency on various countries across the globe. How do different countries look back upon four years of President Trump? In this third episode of the Clingendael Spectator series “Four Years Trump: Taking Stock and Looking Forward”, Julian Lindley-French analyses the Special Relationship that could have a surprisingly bright future.
"So I would say I give our relationship, in terms of grade, the highest level of special. So we start off with special"
President Donald J. Trump, 14 July, 2018
“We own your ass!”
In 1886 Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It tells the story of a scientist who on taking a serum of his own invention is transformed from the amiable Dr Henry Jekyll into the evil Mr Edward Hyde.
There are those in London who might be forgiven for thinking the ‘Special Relationship’ has developed similar tendencies during the Trump administration; one minute it is a relationship of kin founded in President Trump’s proud Scottish heritage, the next it is simply a deal.
The hard truth is that relationship has always been more ‘special’ in London than in Washington. Indeed, it only ever became ‘special’ because of Britain’s desperate need at the beginning of World War Two. Indeed, whilst Winston Churchill did not coin the phrase ‘Special Relationship’ until 1946, he was clearly conscious of the need to invent an artifice to hide the true nature of the relationship even at its outset – American dominance.
It is easy to forget just how important America and Britain still are to each other economically
With Britain again in dire post-Brexit, post-COVID-19 need, what was true then is just as true now, albeit not quite so desperate. As one senior American told me: “We own your ass now!”
And yet, Britain still carries some weight for the United States across the economic, political and security policy spectrum. During the Trump years several distinct issues have attested to both the enduring strength of the relationship and its decidedly lop-sided nature: Brexit and the search for a free-trade deal, tensions over the demise of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Iran nuclear accord, Britain’s limited military role on Syria, and NATO.
The Trump Special Relationship
It is easy to forget just how important America and Britain still are to each other economically. They remain the largest single national source of foreign direct investment in each other. Contemporary US-UK trade is worth some €230bn or 20% of UK exports. Still, that is only some 50% of UK exports to the EU. London thinks a free trade deal would be worth an additional €18bn.1
However, no issue has revealed more the extent of the paradox of the Special Relationship than Brexit. To some extent there is a symbiotic element to the relationship built on mutual self-interest, because whilst the British seek to extricate themselves from the EU, the Americans stand to gain from a free trade deal on decidedly American terms, a bit like wartime Lend-Lease.
Though, whilst President Trump is keen to use Brexit to weaken the EU, the British have no desire to do more damage than Brexit has already done. To Trump, the British seem to want to have their cake and eat it; leave the EU, court America but stay on friendly terms with a Brussels he despises.
The Special Relationship has been and remains essentially a security and defence partnership in which the British get American defence in return for British support of US policy
Such British dithering has not only alienated Trump, but undermined the chance of a free trade deal being agreed with the US anytime in 2020. Lurking at the back of the minds of many British policy-makers is the fear the British would become a pawn of the Trump administration in a future trade war between the US and the EU.
The Special Relationship has been and remains essentially a security and defence partnership in which the British get American defence in return for British support of US policy. In the past this has led to the accusation of Britain being a US ‘poodle’, dutifully responding to its master’s commands. It was always far more than that.
However, for Trump disappointment over Britain’s half-hearted military role in Syria was compounded by London siding with Berlin and Paris over the US decisions to unilaterally end the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019.
This fissure hides a profound Anglo-American split. When it comes to statecraft the British are very much a contemporary European power schooled in diplomacy designed to ‘nudge’ adversaries towards concession, whilst for Trump ‘diplomacy’ is a series of iterative ‘for me or against me’ deals.
The last thing London wants is to be dragged into what it sees as a strange and potentially toxic mix of Trumpian adventurism and isolationism
This approach is inimical to the very concept of British diplomacy. For the British treaties and similar instruments of constraint are the very essence of international relations, however imperfect; for Trump such constraints are for little powers.
Moreover, after the Afghanistan and Iraq imbroglios, and ten years of post-crash austerity, the last thing London wants is to be dragged into what it sees as a strange and potentially toxic mix of Trumpian adventurism and isolationism. COVID-19 will likely make such British reluctance even more marked, whoever wins the White House in November.
And yet, for all those tensions Trump respects British intelligence and its admittedly small but quality armed forces which continue to play an often unseen role in support of the US. Moreover, Britain’s ambivalence over NATO is not something Trump finds surprising.
In spite of London’s persistent rhetoric about the centrality of NATO to British defence strategy, Britain’s defence choices imply the opposite
His frontal assault on the NATO Allies at the 2018 Brussels Summit was followed in 2019 by Britain effectively abandoning a Continental Strategy by withdrawing the massive bulk of its remaining forces from ‘Europe’.
In spite of London’s persistent rhetoric about the centrality of NATO to British defence strategy, Britain’s defence choices imply the opposite: that London is much more interested in becoming a significant maritime-amphibious-intelligence player in a US-led Anglosphere. Trump also probably views a Britain hunkering down behind its modernising nuclear deterrent as something he would do in the wake of Brexit if he were prime minister.
Donald and Boris?
For all the policy issues much in the Special Relationship has always depended on the personal chemistry between presidents and prime ministers. When it is good, the relationship works: Churchill-Roosevelt, MacMillan-Kennedy, Reagan-Thatcher, Blair-Clinton, Blair-George W. Bush. When it is bad, there is little special about the relationship at all: Eden-Eisenhower, Wilson-Johnson, Heath-Nixon, Callaghan-Carter.
The Jekyll and Hyde Relationship under Trump was made significantly worse by his lack of chemistry with the deeply uninspiring Theresa May. Trump despised her as a weak leader, the worst possible insult in the broad lexicon of Trumpian insults.
His relationship with Boris Johnson is very different. He sees ‘BoJo’ as a kindred spirit who understands power, who was also the architect of Brexit, and someone with whom the art of a major deal might be possible.
Today, the relationship has become more of a Jekyll and Hyde balancing act than ever
Were it that simple for London. Today, the relationship has become more of a Jekyll and Hyde balancing act than ever. On the one hand, London is keen to demonstrate loyalty by not publicly criticising Trump, even though London is often privately exasperated, particularly by the President’s tendency towards capricious policy-making.
On the other hand, Downing Street does not want to appear so close to Trump that any future relationship with a Biden presidency would be destroyed at the outset. Former Prime Minister John Major discovered the cost of such folly when he appeared to be too close to President George H.W. Bush shortly before his defeat by Bill Clinton in 1992.
The Special Relationship today
Like many Europeans the British have found it hard to separate the Trump factor from wider structural changes taking place in the transatlantic relationship. Whoever is in the White House, the degree of ‘specialness’ in the relationship will always be ultimately subject to the level of power Britain can generate in support of US foreign, security and defence policy, particularly during an emergency. In other words: power matters.
In October 2018, one of Britain’s new 70,000 ton aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth dropped anchor in the waters off New York. As she came to a stop the whole of the city could see this powerful new Allied warship, something the US Ambassador to London made great play of on the American media.
It was, he said, a demonstration of British sea power and the continued importance of Britain to America. To an American public long-tired of defending a Europe seemingly unwilling and/or unable to defend itself here was proof that the Old Ally was once again stepping up and providing a high-end military asset to serve alongside US forces. This was British influence in action.
Britain’s intelligence-led power projection ‘strategic raider’ future force will continue to have some significant if limited strategic utility for the Americans and thus help ease their growing military over-stretch.
Such capabilities offer the vision of a US-useful Britain able to act as a coalition command hub for European forces, should the Americans be busy elsewhere
The Royal Navy’s two new aircraft carriers are being reinforced by advanced Astute-class nuclear attack submarines (HMS Audacious will join the fleet in early 2021), T-45 destroyers and the forthcoming Global Combat Ships. Such capabilities offer the vision of a US-useful Britain able to act as a coalition command hub for European forces, not least for the Dutch, should the Americans be busy elsewhere.
The Dreadnought-class nuclear ballistic missile submarines currently under construction will also afford the Americans further strategic flexibility by reinforcing Allied deterrence. Britain’s Special Forces and Specialised Expeditionary forces are highly competent, and its offensive and defensive cyber capability is Europe’s most advanced.
The ‘but’. If, in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, Britain effectively abandons national defence for human/health security and signals to the Americans it no longer wishes to play a role either in defending Europe or easing US strategic pressures, then the Special Relationship could well stop being ‘special’.
With the loss of such a strategic narrative the very idea of a United Kingdom is now open to question
There is a further possible twist. Both the United Kingdom and the United States were born of imperial destiny. Indeed, whilst Britain colonised large parts of the world in the wake of the 1783 loss of the American colonies, the Americans set about colonising the rest of non-British North America.
With the loss of such a strategic narrative the very idea of a United Kingdom is now open to question. If Scotland does eventually secede from the Union, ‘Britain’ will still be a relatively rich and powerful country of some sixty-plus million souls – and a little richer shorn of the need to subsidise the Scots.
Trump might champion the art of the deal, but it has been the art and application of power that has really defined the ‘Special Relationship’
However, ‘England’ would in effect be at the end of a story that began in 1603 with the union of the English and Scottish crowns. As such, the strategic heart of Britain would finally be torn out and all and any pretentions to a power role destroyed.
President Trump might champion the art of the deal, but it has been the art and application of power that has really defined the ‘Special Relationship’. Critically, if an increasingly strategically illiterate London becomes completely a-strategic and simply reverts to being yet another capital of yet another parochial European power then no amount of nostalgia will save the Special Relationship.
Trump or no Trump, the Special Relationship will depend on the British again answering a question they have been constantly and repeatedly asked by the Americans since 1941: how much power can you in London offer us in Washington?
The Special Relationship will depend, as it always has, on whether the British are willing and able to assist the US
Critically, for the relationship to endure the British will have to be able to ease America’s strategic over-stretch, and actively do it. Above all, London must accept that its strategic utility to Washington as a European regional-strategic power, Brexit or not.
Therefore, in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, and whoever is elected in November, the Special Relationship will depend, as it always has, on whether the British are willing and able to assist the US.
During Trump term one, the Special Relationship became more of a transactional test of British loyalty than power. During Trump 2, or even post-Trump, the Special Relationship will likely become even more of a test of British power, will and loyalty. Why should the Americans even bother with the British? They need allies, and capable ones at that.
- 1. See: Lisa O’Carroll, ‘Key Points: What the UK wants in a Future US Trade Deal’, The Guardian, 2 March 2020.