When Theresa May became the first head of state to visit Donald Trump in Washington, a photo of the two leaders holding hands while strolling around the White House went viral – predictably stealing the show from any other news about their meeting.
Like all things colored by Brexit, reactions to both the photo and meeting drew ire and admiration. To some, adorning Mr. Trump with its highest honour of a state visit was a desperate act in which Britain sold its integrity to a man yet to even bid on it. For others, it was a pragmatic and sensible step – ahead of the many bold ones – needed to carve out a place for a Britain that may boom or bust.
After all, what more could boost the United Kingdom in its present situation than an enlivened bond with the United States; ally in arms, intelligence and investment? The two are seemingly so in sync with one another’s appetites for bygone glory and identity that even their 2016 voting results expressed a similar desire to put themselves first -from ‘Making America Great Again’ to ‘Taking Back Control’.
Perhaps it is little wonder, then, that one year on the transatlantic tag team has rarely seemed so estranged. May, once understandable in her attempt to attractively position the UK as a broker between the US and the rest of Europe, has largely failed to tame the President’s inflammatory will into dependable support. The Prime Minister’s encouragement for Trump to remain committed to a NATO alliance the President regards as ‘obsolete’ has so far been honoured, though the vague successes end here.
Twice the UK suffered terror attacks in 2017 – and twice the US’ response was to agitate. Following the Manchester bombing, American intelligence leaked the attacker’s name along with crime scene photos. Appalling many in Whitehall, this incident was only a precursor to Trump’s dismissal of London Mayor Sadiq Khan after the terror attack in June. But not until November would relations reach rock-bottom: using his most potent agenda-setting platform, the Twitter President shared several anti-Islam videos from Britain First, a far-right party on the fringes of British politics. This act was met with widespread disgust and the credibility of the videos were disputed. May responded by condemning Trump’s actions, a response which led him to hit back at her personally: not even the ‘special relationship’ could save the Prime minister from the President’s Twitter hit-list.
There is also the question of the President’s visit to the UK, currently in diplomatic limbo. Once promised a reception with the Queen, Trump’s trip had been seemingly downgraded to a working visit – before he cancelled it entirely. Exclusive dining in Beijing’s Forbidden City and Riyadh’s spectacle of glowing orbs and sword dancing may have set the bar high, and certainly higher than the mere opening of London’s new American embassy could ever fulfil – especially if the said embassy was a ‘bad deal’ made by Obama.
While this is the official explanation for the President’s latest cancellation, there is another theory. It is rare to see such consensus across the UK’s political spectrum, as prominent voices from Labour’s Sadiq Khan, to Conservative Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, and former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, all agree that disdain from the British public and government is what has really deterred Mr. Trump. This view is further backed by ‘Fire and Fury’ author Michael Wolff, among other sources close to the President.
As a leader who prides herself on stoicism, the Prime Minister is bound to paint a picture of business as usual. After all, her premiership comes loaded with the improbable mission of steering Britain undamaged through Brexit; the political quake to define a generation. In true “strong and stable” style, it is likely that May will continue to insist the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and US is unique, unparalleled and unshakeable. But the mask is slipping. The second promise from May and Trump’s early meeting – a lucrative trade deal between the UK and US – fades further from memory with each discouraging headline.
Looking back, it is telling that the term ‘special relationship’ was coined by Winston Churchill in his Iron Curtain speech; the union of an ‘us’ dependent on a distant ‘them’. The term’s sway as a point of pride and a war cry has since ebbed and flowed with the leaders that share the stage. Burning desires to roll back communism and promote neoliberalism forged a famously strong bond between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, while Tony Blair and Bill Clinton stood side by side to lead NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War, all in the name of ‘humanitarian intervention’.
Here begins the downward spiral: Blair’s support of the Iraq War under the same doctrine has stained his name as the horror of war centred on false grounds tends to do. Such a reception was not helped by the view that the UK had bent over backwards to appease American interests at the expense of what Britain should stand for. By the time reflection was due on the pair’s military intervention in Libya, no praise of their friendship softened the blow of failure. President Obama mourned his dangerously lacking response after toppling Muammar Ghaddafi as his ‘worst mistake’, scrutinised David Cameron’s support, and according to insiders regarded the ‘special relationship’ as a joke.
All of this is not to say that ties between the UK and the US are beyond repair or suddenly unimportant. Time will tell how effectively Theresa May and Donald Trump approach their mounting tensions. But while both nations are consumed with their own political chaos, it is clear that this friendship – ailing or revived – is not enough to save one another from themselves.