All British prime ministers give top priority to having a close relationship with the president of the United States. They want to be the first into the Oval Office when he is elected. They want to maintain and if possible burnish ‘the special relationship’ crafted by Churchill in 1941. They want Britain to be the partner to whom the president naturally turns when he wants advice or support.
The job of British ambassadors to the US is to make all that happen, without Britain seeming too needy. It has become harder over the years as Britain has evolved from global power to medium-sized European nation state. But, until we headed for Brexit without thinking through the consequences, we were able to draw on our economic and political importance to other Europeans and the respect our diplomacy and armed forces generated around the world.
The relationship was never problem-free – remember, it wasn’t felt strong enough to sustain a state visit until King George VI’s triumphant trip in 1939.
Despite their mutual regard, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher had rows over a US attempt to stop British companies supplying turbines for the trans-Siberian gas pipeline and the US invasion of the island of Grenada. When I first served in Washington in the mid-1990s, John Major declined to take a call from President Clinton for almost a week because he was so angry that the White House had given visas to Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein. Tony Blair was so close – perhaps too close – to George Bush that his legacy became inextricably entwined with the US decision to invade Iraq in 2003.
When I was ambassador in President Obama’s time, the problems, when they arose, were around doubts that the UK still had the military capability and political will to be the ally of choice for the US -the vote in the House of Commons on 29 August 2013 against taking military action with the Americans in response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons had a lasting effect. The Obama administration was also unimpressed by the enthusiasm with which Washington thought David Cameron and George Osborne were embracing business opportunities in China.
Fundamentally, though, these differences did not cause lasting damage since there was too much substance to the relationship for either party to want to risk allowing the arguments to get out of control.
When Donald Trump entered the White House in January 2017, there was the usual dash from London to be first through the door, despite the reservations people in Britain had about the character, behaviour and priorities of the new president. For Theresa May, all the usual considerations were in play, plus the hope that Trump was somehow going to be an invaluable ally in making a success of Brexit. After all, he was on record as saying that the result of the UK referendum, and the revolt against political ‘elites’ that it represented, had helped him get elected; and that he was going to give the UK a new free trade agreement to help make up for Britain’s loss of exports to the EU.
At their first meeting, May promised Trump a state visit – something never normally offered as soon as a new head of state assumes office. So controversial were the early months of the Trump presidency that his first visit to the UK in July 2018 was treated as no more than a working trip – even though there was dinner at Blenheim Palace and tea with the Queen. The goodwill the visit was supposed to engender was blown apart by an incendiary interview Trump gave to his friend Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper, accusing May of wrecking Brexit and adding for good measure that Boris Johnson would make a very good prime minister.
Over the first two years of his presidency Trump turned out to be at odds with the UK on more issues than any of his predecessors: his attacks on NATO; attempts to undermine the EU; pandering to Russia; repudiation of the Paris climate change accords; overturning of the delicate balance successive presidents – and their European allies – had sought to create between Israel and the Palestinians; and, renunciation of the nuclear deal with Iran co-negotiated with the UK and the other permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany. And that is without assessing the damage he has done to Western leadership, and the values we share, through his venality, prejudice, racism and apparent belief that truth is whatever he wants it to be.
Despite it all, Theresa May advised the Queen to go ahead just a year later with the full-court state visit Trump had been promised. He and his family were bowled over by the pageantry and the charm of members of the Royal Family. This time, he was on best behaviour and warmed the hearts of his hosts by declaring that the relationship with the UK was “the greatest alliance the world has ever known”.
But then, just weeks later, he insulted both Ambassador Kim Darroch and Theresa May in a series of tweets after the leaking of some of Darroch’s diplomatic reporting describing his administration as ‘inept’ and ‘dysfunctional’, and the president as insecure. The language was hardly over the top – one senior US Senator told me he thought the ambassador had written with ‘typical British understatement’. Yet the most telling part of the drama which led to Kim’s resignation was not the president’s petulant tweeting, which surprised almost no-one; it was the refusal of Boris Johnson, then prime minister-in-waiting, to stand up for the ambassador for fear of causing offence to the man he hopes will be his close friend and ally once he is established in Number 10. At a stroke, Darroch’s position became untenable.
Establishing close relations with the president – whom Johnson once said possessed “a quite stupefying ignorance” which made him “unfit to be president” – would be important for any new British prime minister. For Johnson, though, there is also the belief that Trump will personally deliver the free trade agreement which will transform the Brexit he wants into an economic success.
Successive economists and trade negotiators have pointed out that this is fantasy. The United States, like any sovereign country, will negotiate long and hard in its own best interests – Congress, which has the final word on trade, will accept nothing less. We currently do more than £180 billion of trade with the US – by far our biggest market – without any free trade agreement, and are unlikely to register more than the smallest increase in that figure if we do agree a FTA. And to get one, we will come under intense pressure to accept US demands on chlorine-washed chicken, hormone-treated beef, the marketing of drugs and much else which many people in Britain will find simply unacceptable.
Brexiteers who want to ditch the Irish backstop and look to the US to help us make up for the economic damage of leaving the single market are also in for a nasty surprise. The US Congress, heavily influenced by the powerful Irish American community, will be unyielding in its determination to do nothing that risks damaging the Good Friday Agreement.
More than any other incoming prime minister, Boris Johnson will need to reflect on the nature of the current US administration, and how best to look after UK interests. For the first time in decades, there is no longer an assumption that America is a force for good; will be loyal to its allies; will act responsibly on foreign policy (consider Trump’s supine relationship with President Putin, the departures of Secretary of State Tillerson and Defense Secretary Mattis, and the views of National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo); or takes seriously its responsibility to future generations for the stewardship of our planet.
It’s a tall order. Partly because of the insistence of Johnson and his friends on breaking our ties to the EU, he will be addressing these issues largely alone, without the strength that comes from collective engagement with other European leaders. His instinct will be to muddle along, jovially doing high-fives with the president, and to hope for the best. The United Kingdom, Europe and the increasingly beleaguered ‘free world’ needs better than that.