Trump, Boris and the future of that ‘special relationship’
The UK government is considering fast-tracking a candidate to replace its ambassador to the US, Kim Darroch, who resigned after Donald Trump’s extraordinary tirade against him and departing Prime Minister Theresa May.
It erupted after secret diplomatic communications sent by Darroch to the British government were leaked to a newspaper. In them, he describes the Trump administration as inept and Trump himself as “radiating insecurity.”
It is widely assumed that the coming change of prime minister will help to repair and rejuvenate the so-called “special relationship” between the two nations, especially if Trump’s kindred spirit Boris Johnson wins the Conservative leadership battle. However, this restoration of the relationship may not be so easy to achieve, given the US president’s erratic nature and key differences in the views of the two sides about their post-Brexit relationship.
The diplomatic row, which also resulted in the postponement of a meeting between US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and UK Trade Secretary Liam Fox to discuss a post-Brexit trade deal, comes at a tricky time for London for at least two reason. First, the transition of power that is underway — which means May is now a “lame duck” prime minister — makes it more difficult for the two sides to quickly rebuild bridges.
In addition, the UK government is on the back foot in other key non-EU relationships at a time when the nation is due to leave the EU on October 31. Not only are ties with China strained over Hong Kong, but other key trading relationships, with Tokyo for example, have been weakened in recent months. This follows a diplomatic upset in February when UK officials were deemed by their Japanese counterparts to be acting in a high-handed manner after trying to force the pace of post-Brexit trade-treaty negotiations with warnings that time was of the essence.
While a leak within the UK civil service is widely thought to be behind the release to the press of Darroch’s secret diplomatic messages, the malicious actions of a foreign power or hacking by another organization cannot be ruled out. In this sense, the incident may prove to have echoes of the problems the US experienced during the Obama administration as a result of the Edward Snowden and Wikileaks affairs.
The Snowden episode, which caused the US government intense embarrassment, underlined the changing map of influence and power in a world that continues to be transformed by economic globalization and the information revolution, including the rise of “big data” enabled by digital technology. To date, these forces have generally reinforced the international pre-eminence of key Western powers such as Washington and London. There are several reasons for this, including the relative technological edge they have over much of the rest of the world (which will decrease over time); that their dominant culture and ideas are close to the prevailing global norms; and their multiple channels of communication which help to frame global issues.
While seeking a potential upside in a revived relationship, Uk PM May’s successor would do well not to ignore the likelihood that when push comes to shove, Trump’s “America First” outlook will care little about core UK interests, despite his professed personal affinity for fellow political maverick Johnson.
However, the emerging environment brings with it new challenges. These include the growing potential for sensitive leaks, and technological advances that have led to a vast increase in the amount of open-source information available to the public. This is fueling skepticism about government information and actions, and could lead to the breakdown of trust between national political elites, and to allies becoming more cautious about sharing information and cooperation.
In this context, the May team has been dismayed by this latest bout of angst caused by the leak of the critical comments about the ever-sensitive Trump. The episode is all the more frustrating for Downing Street because it comes after a relatively successful trip last month by Trump to London, which both governments hoped might breathe new life into the special relationship after his tricky dealings with May.
Trump sees a potential post-Brexit, US-UK trade deal as the cornerstone of a renewed special relationship. It could also be a boon to him personally, since he is criticized in many quarters for being an antiglobalization, protectionist president. For Johnson, too, it would represent a victory in his own battle to show that Britain is capable of swiftly securing post-Brexit trade deals with key non-European partners.
There are key areas ripe for agreement here, including the lowering or elimination of tariffs. Equally, however, potential icebergs loom on the horizon.
Specific areas of possible disagreement on trade matters include the prospect that a harmonization of financial regulations, given the international dominance of Wall Street and the City of London, will not necessarily be easy. Securing agreement in other sectors, including agriculture, will not be straightforward either.
While security and defense have long been at the core of the special relationship, tensions have arisen even in these areas; the Trump team has warned UK officials that Washington may limit intelligence sharing if London allows Chinese technology company Huawei to build part of its 5G network.
Given the many uncertainties that surround the Trump presidency, the next UK prime minister is likely to seek to play the role of a trusted friend in an attempt to get close to the president and try to make the relationship work more smoothly. This may provide some protection for ties in what could be a rocky few years for international relations.
While this may be a sensible strategy, it is not without risk, especially given Trump’s erratic nature and the polarized views about him in the UK. While seeking a potential upside in a revived relationship, May’s successor would do well not to overestimate the UK’s ability to shape US power, or ignore the likelihood that when push comes to shove, Trump’s “America First” outlook will care little about core UK interests, despite his professed personal affinity for fellow political maverick Johnson.
• Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics