So, President Trump didn’t want to come to London to open the brand new, amazingly expensive, monumentally secure and advanced American Embassy because it was a bad real-estate deal.
Other than getting the initiating president wrong – Trump cited Obama of course, when it was George W Bush, but this is a small matter in the huge cloud of falsity and delusion that swamps the Trump White House – was it really the case that quondam bankrupt real estate developer in Trump was genuinely so offended by the embassy deal that he couldn’t bring himself to accredit it?
Or was he bothered about public protests in America’s “closest ally”? Or, as some sources have it, annoyed at the slights he’s been getting recently? Or just irritated that he might not be invited to the royal wedding nuptials when Barack Obama might?
Any of the above might be the reason for Trump’s decision not to touch down in the old mother country. It doesn’t really matter, just go ahead and take your pick. They all sound plausible, except for that first one that Trump actually gave. More notable is what this means for Britain and America. For the first time since the Second World War an American president has finally, irrefutably, given the cold shoulder to one of the most enduring diplomatic myths in international relations. There is no “special relationship” between Britain and America. There. It’s now public knowledge. It may be the first time that Trump has found himself on the right side of history. The first time he has exhibited truth where all others sheltered behind a convenient, comfort-inducing fiction.
Granted, Trump has given the kibosh to the “special relationship” out of pure personal pique, but at least it’s something. If it finally persuades the British government to stop wasting their time thinking that (a) they matter in the counsels of America and (b) that such a relationship allows them a special, punching beyond their weight type of clout, then it is fundamentally a good thing.
The Trump Snub couldn’t have happened to a more deserving government. Great was the alacrity shown by Prime Minister Theresa May in hopping over to Washington to cosy up to the new president when Trump was elected. Never mind all the good reasons not to get too personally close to the most volatile and untrustworthy figure to inhabit the White House. Mrs. May and her team, showing that famously astute judgement that would later bring them a disastrous general election and a botched cabinet reshuffle amongst other things, sped on over to make merry with the Trump team.
And how it has backfired. Not only has the all too hasty offer of a state visit come to haunt May like an ultra-resilient Banquo’s ghost, it has also made any subsequent rebuke or challenge to the president in foreign policy seem somehow craven and treacherous. A remarkable feat given the nature of a president who so often does seem to need rebuking.
But Mrs. May can take at least some comfort from the fact that, while hers is the first British premiership to be so publicly brushed off, at least behind the scenes the tradition is not new.
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. The paint has faded for Mrs. May, but here is a brief survey of the most ambitious fiction perpetrated in diplomacy.
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.