Britain faces fight for relevance in skewed relationship with America

UK has nothing to show for its flattery of Trump, other than some reputational damage

When Theresa May visited Washington in January, she mentioned the special relationship more times than her hosts spelt her name right in the official schedule. Fielding questions on President Donald Trump's refugee ban in Ankara later in the week, she equivocated and seemed to freeze. The prime minister was still six months from an electoral fall but history will record those back-to-back trips as the first telling clue to her inadequacies.

But what, she is entitled to ask, was she meant to do? Once Britain voted to leave the EU – against her wishes, however quietly asserted – it could not contemplate a rupture with the US president, too. There was something distasteful about the fringe Eurosceptics who cheered Trump’s rise as a vindication of their cause, but something hard-headed as well. If he saw a world tilting from globalist technocrats to sovereign nations, with Britain at the leading edge, the least we could do is humour him for the sake of a trade agreement.

There was no shame in the UK’s mission to profit from the Trump presidency. There is some shame, with eight months of evidence, in the pretence that it is going anywhere.

Those Eurosceptics assumed two things of the new president: a coherent view of the outside world and the political wherewithal to impose it on a reluctant American establishment. Time has exposed both as wishful thoughts. His worldview is a farrago of irreconcilable instincts: autarky but also commercial pragmatism; America first but also action in Syria. The mix makes him hard to court, even for diplomats as steeped in ambiguities as the British. His one consistency – the worship of strength – does not help a medium-sized nation with a frail prime minister.

Where there is coherence, it is of a nationalist strain that is not much easier to work with. Brexit’s biggest admirers in the Trump team, says one member of May’s cabinet, are also the keenest to screen America from trade. Where does that leave Britain and its neo-Elizabethan dream of seafaring commerce? You cannot eat a pat on the back.

Old-fashioned statecraft

If the first of Britain's two bets flopped quickly, the second has taken a while. Last week, Pippa Malmgren, an official under president George W Bush who now advises Liam Fox, the British trade secretary, said Trump "does not know how to operate the US government".

Her bluntness is corroborated by events: his loss of staff, the growing assertiveness of more conventional voices. British diplomats always backed America’s policy establishment to win in the end, if only because – unlike Brexit – the Trump presidency is time-limited and reversible.

But if we are in the first phase of a gradual restoration of American orthodoxy, especially in foreign affairs, then Britain might be the one western nation with little to celebrate. It has nothing to show for its flattery of Trump, including that promised state visit to London, than some reputational damage. It will then also have to reckon with the pragmatism of old-fashioned US statecraft without recourse to its own continental bloc.

It will have to reckon with the America that put Britain on the naughty step when it invaded the Suez Canal. The America that favoured Bonn and then Berlin over London as its point of European contact as the Cold War ended. The America that urged British commitment to the European project and did what it could to influence the referendum in favour of membership. The America that has sectoral interests in agriculture and industry that should bring Mr Fox out in a cold sweat.

Loss of illusions

This is Britain’s bind: Trump is not the cash cow that some had hoped, but the alternative is no soft touch either. We face a fight for relevance.

If any good comes from this, it should be a loss of illusions: a willingness to see America as a normal country, not as a benefactor. There is something creepier about the phrase “special relationship” than the asymmetry of its usage. It is the amount of store it puts in bloodlines, as though earthly differences must yield to shared ancestry. (Hence the term “cousins”, again more common in Westminster than in Washington.)

The largest ethnic group in America are the Germans. If Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor, built her Atlantic policy on that fact, we would question her grip on reason. Yet Britain still makes a fuss of lineages that involve a small share of the American population.

Some of the most stone-faced in their dealings with the British were Wasps: John Foster Dulles, Dean Acheson, George Bush senior. We hold a candle in the face of all these rebuffs. And we call the Americans emotional.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017