Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, will be the first foreign leader to meet new US president Donald Trump this Friday and it has caused a resurgence of hope in Britain that the much vaunted “Special Relationship” is back in vogue. In Britain, the term “special relationship” refers to what is believed to be a unique partnership between the two English-speaking powers of Britain and its old colonies across the Atlantic.
The problem is that Britain is rather more devoted to the idea than the United States. Whilst the new president undoubtedly has some anglophilic tendencies – he is, for example, restoring the bust of Winston Churchill to the Oval Office, and speaks positively about the British vote to leave the EU – the British prime minister should tread warily. Mr. Trump himself is quite clear in his commitment to “America First” – it dominated the thinking in his inauguration speech – but British prime ministers have always tended to be a little disappointed by their attempted diplomatic embrace with the much bigger power overseas. Whether President Trump breaks the decidedly one-sided nature of the relationship remains to be seen, but if the actions of past presidents are anything to go by this may be one area at least where he is well in vogue with his predecessors.
Since the time of Franklin Roosevelt and the expansion of American power consequent upon the Second World War the British, for all their desperate flirting, have often been left in the cold with occasionally just enough acting paint to hide the tears. Here is a brief history of the not-so-special-relationship that Theresa May is hoping to reignite.
Roosevelt and Churchill
This is where it was meant to have started. FDR moved heaven and earth to get US aid to brave little Britain, and he and Churchill bestrode the post-war world stage like conquering colossi joined at the hip. Yes?
Er, well not quite. Roosevelt was a thoroughly reluctant interventionist. He gave short shrift to the pro-interventionist Century Group, deferring instead to advisers like Sumner Welles, who in January 1940 was still determined to get Hitler and Mussolini to talk peace. When help did come, Roosevelt extracted everything he could from Britain and then tried to make sure the Atlantic War was firmly eastern focused, which suited American interests better. Neville Chamberlain had always believed that the cost of American help would be too high – he wasn’t wrong. Military bases, trading concessions and considerable regional influence was all ceded to the USA. The Roosevelt-Churchill relationship existed mainly in the mind of Churchill himself, who did so much to propagate it. Which is surprising, given the way FDR himself sought to undermine Churchill in front of Stalin at Yalta.
Truman and Attlee
Attlee didn’t speak much anyway, but his Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin did, and it was Bevin who felt so downtrodden by Truman’s Secretary of State that he advocated British ownership of nuclear weapons, if only so that “no foreign secretary gets spoken to by an American Secretary of State like that again”. It was another Truman Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, who caustically remarked that “Britain has lost an empire but not yet found a role”. Thanks for the support Dean.
One word really. Suez. When Anthony Eden tried to protect British interests in the Suez Canal, Eisenhower was the first and most important statesman out of the blocks to condemn him. And then begin a run on the pound. Never mind that Khrushchev was slaughtering Hungarian rebels at the time – Britain was Enemy No. 1! Oh, and lest we forget, it was Eisenhower as US Supreme Commander who stymied Churchill and Montgomery’s plan to beat the Russians to Berlin. He didn’t believe the Russians posed a threat and decried Churchill’s pleas to the contrary.
Nixon and Heath
Possibly the only really effective working relationship between a US President and a British Prime minister, because it was based on an understanding that there wasn’t actually a Special Relationship at all. Both Heath and Nixon believed that America’s real focus in Europe was never going to be a single country, but a united European organization. Nixon, in any case, was very clearly identifying the East as the true arena for US activity.
Reagan and Thatcher
This is where it’s meant to really go into overdrive. If the lovebirds Maggie and Ron didn’t have a special relationship, then who did? But, alas, for all their cooing to each other in public, Reagan not only proved notoriously slow to throw support behind Britain in the Falklands crisis, but then didn’t let Thatcher know when he invaded the Commonwealth country of Grenada. Britain had to content herself by joining 108 other nations in condemning the invasion at the UN. Tellingly, Reagan later recollected than when Thatcher phoned him to say he shouldn’t go ahead, “She was very adamant and continued to insist that we cancel our landings on Grenada. I couldn’t tell her that it had already begun.” Special Relationship indeed.
Bush and Blair
No world leader was more determined to show his support for the US than Tony Blair. No other world leader was greeted familiarly as “Yo, Blair”. But for all the support he gave to George W. Bush’s strategy of middle east invasion, Blair’s voice was heard as tinnily as anyone else’s when it came to trying to influence US foreign policy. It was one of the supreme, defining failures of his premiership.
Obama and Cameron
They played table tennis and cooked burgers together, but when it came to an alignment of interests there was precious little empathy. President Obama famously noted that Britain would be “at the back of the queue” when it came to negotiating new trade agreements after a Brexit vote, and he was very critical of Cameron’s role in foreign policy. Obama believed Cameron was wrong on Libya and stymied his own efforts in Syria when the British PM allowed parliament to vote against intervention.
Theresa May, then, is following in a grand tradition of trying to re-start a special relationship that has never got past the warm-up phase. She might be lucky. President Trump will be in the business of surprising everyone over the next four years and he might just take a different tack on this one too. But don’t bet on it. Realpolitic will be as important to him as his predecessors, and by that principle Britain is just another pygmy, albeit one with a common language.