Special relationship with US likely to wane as UK more introspective

As Britain becomes more insular, its role in transatlantic accords will decline

Even before the political aftershocks that followed last Thursday's Brexit earthquake, the "special relationship" between the United States and the United Kingdom had already shown cracks. President Barack Obama vented some surprisingly candid frustration about British prime minster David Cameron in a foreign policy interview with the Atlantic magazine in March.

Obama warned Cameron, according to the magazine, that Britain could no longer claim to have the special relationship with the US if it did not commit to spend at least 2 per cent of its gross domestic product on defence. Cameron ponied up.

Assessing what went wrong in Libya following the 2011 Nato-led air campaign, Obama said that he had put more faith in the Europeans in follow-up action in the North African country and that Cameron had become "distracted by a range of other things".

Obama and his officials have fallen over themselves to reassure their British allies that the special relationship will “endure” and “remains a special relationship” since voters in the UK chose to exit the EU. This has come despite a warning from the US president on a visit to London that the UK would go to “the back of the queue” on negotiating a trade deal with the US – an obvious demotion on the “special” scale.

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The relationship may still, publicly at least, be special but the UK's decision to opt out of a 28-country bloc will make the UK the weaker relation in the transatlantic alliance. "You will hear people talking incessantly about the special relationship, but my hunch is that the fact that people will feel the need to repeat it so often is almost a sure sign that it's less special," said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a US envoy to Northern Ireland during the George W Bush administration.

“Brexit obviously will lead, if it goes ahead, to a poorer Britain, a weaker Britain. It will possibly lead to the unravelling of the UK. It will be a less influential UK so whatever the mindset between Washington and London, the fact is Great Britain will necessarily be a less capable and less influential, hence a less significant partner.”

Obama has avoided any postmortem on the merits of putting a large thumb on the scale during the Brexit debate by intervening so publicly in April, but his threat that an Anglo-American trade accord would become something of an afterthought for Washington is viewed more as political reality than a strategic ploy to help Cameron.

The Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP – Obama’s much-vaunted trade deal involving 12 Pacific rim countries – has drawn the most energy from his administration’s trade negotiators following the agenda of a man who described himself as “America’s first Pacific president” in 2009 during his “pivot” to Asia in the first year of his administration.

In his second term, plans for an ambitious European trade deal, under the guise of Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, have stalled amid increasing anti-trade sentiment particularly among Bernie Sanders-excited Democratic voters.

A post-Brexit bilateral deal with the UK will be a secondary priority to the agreement of a deal with the world’s largest single market, the EU, by the end of Obama’s term and there are limited reserves of political capital in Washington to agree successive trade deals.

"President Obama was just trying to be honest about the practical difficulties before them, laying out a fact that there is this crowded agenda," said Derek Chollet, a former assistant defence secretary at the Pentagon during the Obama administration who is now at the Washington think-tank, the German Marshall Fund. "And, to add this to the agenda, it is going to be among those other issues that we have. It is not punitive."

Obama is seven months away from becoming a private citizen again, so the decision on prioritising a side trade deal with the UK is ultimately in the gift of the next president.

"I hope it was a tactical comment and not a permanent policy," said Mitchell Reiss, another former US envoy to Northern Ireland, of Obama's "back of the queue" remark. "I can argue again why a trade deal with the EU is probably now difficult without Britain being part of it, to influence it, but I don't know why we would want to delay a bilateral agreement with the fifth-largest economy in the world."

While London and Washington have been and will remain close – for example on security and intelligence with close co-operation between the CIA and MI6 on international matters and the FBI and MI5 on domestic security – Berlin has grown closer.

Notwithstanding the embarrassing scandal of the US eavesdropping on the phone line of chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany has become a more influential ally for the US on pushing the Iran nuclear deal and sanctions against Russia over Ukraine and by taking the lead on the European refugee crisis stemming from the war in Syria.

Despite US secretary of state John Kerry cautioning that "nobody loses their head" in the frenzy following the Brexit vote, the immediate political crisis in the UK reflects the country's diminished global role and a sudden shift to insularity and isolationism.

“We are going to see a Britain that is more preoccupied, divided, engrossed by a debate about itself rather than what it can do in the world,” Chollet said. “In the medium to longer term, does Britain come out of this stronger or weaker? The prevailing opinion, in the UK and around the world, is it is going to come out weaker and therefore, by definition, can weaken other countries who rely on their partnership.”

Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon's secretary of state, once famously asked: "Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?" For Washington diplomats in the period to come, it will be less and less likely – at least outside the realm of national security – that there will be a "44" country code in the number they dial.