Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group and a member of the US Embassy’s Young Leader’s UK programme.
Donald Trump will depart a NATO summit in Brussels and fly into the UK on Friday 13 July – ominous, you might say.
It will be the first time he has set foot here since June 2016, one day after the UK voted to leave the EU. It was symbolic then of this support for Brexit, which remains just as resilient now.
The working visit will fall short of the State Visit that Theresa May offered when she rushed to Washington in January last year. The President’s meeting with the Queen has been confirmed by Woody Johnson, the US Ambassador, which is expected to take place at Windsor Castle.
Beyond that the agenda remains largely unknown. In order to protect the ego of the President, and with that the special relationship in the near future, it expected that the president’s stops will avoid the big cities where protests may form at short notice. Appealing to Trump’s obsession with personal relationships, and therefore the need to feel individually welcomed, countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel went to great lengths to fawn over the President; there is no indication of ‘Make the Special Relationship Great Again’ posters being erected across London or Aberdeen.
The fundamentals of the relationship remain, but showing signs of strain
The US-UK relationship is under strain on a day-to-day basis, if nothing else then because of the sudden unpredictability that Trump has brought to international relations during his short tenure. Long gone are the days of the Obama-Cameron ‘bromance’, instead replaced by a far more stern, at times dysfunctional, relationship between Trump and May.
It is clear that the two lack the camaraderie and chemistry enjoyed by Trump and Macron, creating a roadblock for the UK as it is personal relationships on which the President appears to base so many of his decisions. Readers should recall how he said he would know “in the first minute” whether Kim Jong Un was serious about negotiating, using “just my touch my touch, my feel”.
The fundamental pillars of the Special Relationship remain strong, but are showing signs of strain. Consider three examples.
Both countries are key defence partners and the White House will send the “highest ranking US delegation in recent memory” to the Farnborough Airshow that follows the visit. Yet it does so with a view to flogging the ‘Buy American’ policy to try and sell more US aircraft abroad, and could put even more pressure on Downing Street and the Treasury to announce increased defence spending amidst growing calls for the same from Gavin Williamson, the Defence Secretary.
We are key economic allies, a relationship that is set to flourish further post-Brexit with the promise of a US-UK FTA still very much on the table. On Monday Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, met Wilbur Ross, the US Commerce Secretary, in London and had a constructive conversation ahead of the next meeting of the UK-US trade and investment working group later this summer.
Yet lobbying by May and leaders of the EU27 were unable to persuade Trump to exempt the European Union from steel and aluminium tariffs imposed on the grounds of a threat to US national security, leading to an economic hit for our domestic exporters.
Washington and Westminster have historically been united in their defence and active pursuit of human rights around the world. Yet the Prime Minister was forced into open criticism of the White House’s child separation policy, describing pictures of child migrants being kept in cages in the US “deeply disturbing”.
Looking across just three strands, we can see how the fundamentals of the Special Relationship are beginning to creak under signs of strain. Next week’s working visit will put that significantly further to the test.
Brexit is a polarising force, even on the Special Relationship
As much as we in the UK like to look across the pond to Washington and enjoy what seems like political chaos that borders reality TV, we cannot forget the state of our own domestic affairs.
In the pursuit of Brexit, we too are undergoing a massive, transformational moment, making our own position on the world stage immediately less predictable. The US used to view the UK as a reliable bridge between the Atlantic and continental Europe, calling on our support – politically, diplomatically and militarily – to coalesce other European nations towards supporting the US agenda.
Despite the US waging what looks by the day even more like a war against the EU, it seems France is poised to steal that role from us.
Yet Brexit ought to become a unifying force between our two nations. The prospects of a US-UK FTA will strengthen economic ties, so long as its contents are mutually beneficial, whilst politically few other heads of state have been as optimistic and ambitious about Brexit as Trump. Just this morning, Ambassador Johnson wrote in the Daily Mail: ‘I do support the British people and the decision you have taken. And I have never doubted for a moment that you are going to make it a success.’
The Special Relationship has remained resolute in the face of strain before, and will continue to do so now even in the most erratic and volatile of political periods. The President’s love for the United Kingdom is said to stem from his mother being born on the Isle of Lewis. As he touches down in the UK next week, it’s nice to see football isn’t the only thing coming home.
Happy Independence Day to our American readers.