Biden Transition Tests the US-UK ‘Special Relationship’
Biden Transition Tests the US-UK ‘Special Relationship’
Presidential transitions, even when they are less fraught than this one, prompt more apprehension among America’s allies than among its enemies. This is especially true of the British.
The British government is exerting itself to show the incoming Joe Biden administration that the UK remains a useful ally. Last month, Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed to a remarkably generous supplementary funding deal for Britain’s armed forces, worth $22 billion over four years. Clearly, he hopes the new US commander in chief will regard this as a commitment to maintain the country’s military capability, always a cornerstone of transatlantic relations.
British officials burn midnight oil to divine the likely course of the Biden administration. A former British ambassador in Washington tells me: “The question is always, ‘Do we know the people who will be around the president? And will they like us?’”
Johnson and his advisers know that Biden has no predisposition to like the prime minister — as President Donald Trump did, seeing a minor clone of himself, a fellow china-breaker.
In the wake of Brexit, Britain will urgently need a new trade deal with Washington to replace the US-EU arrangements. Yet the Biden administration will be in no hurry to negotiate, especially until it becomes plain whether the precarious 1998 Irish Good Friday peace agreement is threatened by cavalier UK conduct over border trade, as some of us fear that it will be.
When spring blossoms, Britain’s prime minister will almost certainly visit the new US president. Tired old phrases about a “special relationship” will be dusted off and written into British headlines. In Washington, such fantasies evoke mild amusement. Few Americans will notice that Johnson is in town.
This British government, like its predecessors, has to learn the hard lesson that US presidents spend much less time thinking about them than they do thinking about the occupant of the White House. Henry Kissinger has wittily described the follies of British prime ministers in meeting US chief executives. “Harold Wilson,” he wrote of the British leader, “greeted President Nixon with the avuncular goodwill of the head of an ancient family that has seen better times.”
Kissinger wrote pityingly of the British yearning to claim a special relationship with the US. This should be indulged, he said, because “we do not suffer in the world from such an excess of friends that we should discourage those who feel that they have a special friendship for us.” The US, he urged, should never wantonly trample on British sensitivities. It should merely pursue “special relationships” with all its allies.
Britain and the US have many values and interests in common. But successive British leaders diminish themselves when they parade delusions about their nation’s importance. Though I am not an intimate in the corridors of power, I have trafficked with six prime ministers, and urged all save Margaret Thatcher — I would not have dared — in vain to adopt realistic attitudes toward Anglo-American relations.
A few days before Theresa May entered 10 Downing Street in July 2016, by chance I was her neighbor at a dinner party. We chatted mostly about nothings, but toward the end of the evening, I said that, as a historian, I would venture to offer one fragment of advice.
When she took office, I said, she would visit Washington and receive all the courtesies in which Americans excel. However, she should never delude herself that relations between our countries involve sentiment. They are governed, instead, by the same criteria that dictate every nation’s foreign policy: perceptions of self-interest. Britain must never fall out with the US, but our leaders should forsake expectations of favors.
May said nothing in response, and I did not expect her to. But soon after Trump became president, she visited Washington and offered him a state visit to Britain — an almost unheard-of invitation at the outset of an administration.
For various reasons, the visit was put off until July 2019. When the president eventually arrived, the British pulled out the stops to entertain him, organizing a spectacular demonstration of the Special Air Service’s antiterrorist prowess, together with the Royal Family’s inimitable roadshow.
It all proved wasted effort. Trump has treated Britain no worse than any other nation, but also no better. Just before General James Mattis resigned as US defense secretary in February 2019, he spoke privately to a senior British officer whom he warned: “However many state visits you fix, this president does not do allies.”
None of the above — nor, indeed, what follows — is a complaint about American behavior. Again and again in the postwar era, our two nations have worked together in ways that have benefited world peace. But British governments would enjoy happier lives, and expose themselves to fewer humiliations, if they acknowledged the UK's relatively modest place in today’s world, together with the fact that many other folks are competing for the ears and smiles of Washington.
The US and British militaries have always cooperated closely, with mutual respect. So much has been written about the quarrels between generals in World War II that it is sometimes forgotten how amazingly well relationships worked at the operational level. Intelligence is the field where Britain has the most to offer the US, a tradition unbroken since the World War II era of Bletchley Park’s legendary codebreakers. GCHQ, the British cyberwar center outside Cheltenham, is a world-class operation, which America’s National Security Agency values immensely.
Trump threatened to break the intelligence partnership unless Britain withdrew contracts from the Chinese Huawei corporation, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government complied. Its own security experts believe the US was correct on this issue.
The same was true back in November 1956, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s rage about the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt, following Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, forced a humiliating retreat. “Suez,” as the British still refer to the crisis, was a ghastly mistake, which exasperated Americans by deflecting world attention away from the savage, almost simultaneous Soviet suppression of the Budapest uprising.
Nonetheless, Anglo-American solidarity through the decades of the Cold War was a critical factor in holding together the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance and checking Soviet adventurism.