Not so Special Anymore

Brexit, not Trump, is the real threat to the 'Special Relationship' writes former State Department Advisor, Max Bergmann.

The meeting of an American president and UK Prime Minister this week was like a horror movie you don’t want to watch but can’t turn away from. The sad state of the two democratic super powers that helped destroy Nazism and save democracy 75 years ago should bring a shiver down the spine.

For the UK, Brexit has upended the stereotype of Britain. The stoic, rational, even-keel Brit that doesn’t get rattled or overly emotional, but keeps calm and carries on, seems to have been replaced by someone having an emotional meltdown in public. Brexit has turned the UK into a shallow power focused on more on finding itself than engaging the world. As for the America, Donald Trump is the human personification of Brexit. He is an accidental president, who somehow lost but still won, aided by rolling discontent with an American establishment that spent the previous 15 years fighting wars and doing little to address a declining middle class and the collapse of economic growth in non-urban areas. Trump has seemed to confirm the caricature of the ugly American and has turned his back on the ideals that America used to, at least, claim to stand for, in order to curry favor with autocrats. Both countries under the rule of Brexit and Trump have become international laughing stocks.

Yet while two aging powers melting down together hand in hand might bring some solace, Brexit, not Trump, will do lasting harm to the special relationship. While Trump’s defeat is by no means a given, he is the most unpopular president on record. His approval ratings have shockingly never risen above 50 percent during his presidency. A Trump defeat in 2020 will bring back in power an American administration committed to alliances and the general concept of global leadership. Trump has done lasting damage to the United States. His election has made America seem unreliable and schizophrenic. And rebuilding America’s global brand and its international position will take considerable effort and likely two terms. Yet there is a path forward for an American revival, defeating Donald Trump in a new election, is clear. And while that happening is uncertain, it still seems more likely than not. In other words, the world should probably bet on an American comeback.

Yet for the UK the comeback is less clear. While Theresa May spent two years trying to figure out how to leave the EU, there is also no clear path on how to stay. A new referendum or a new election, should be held. But a decision to remain leave is not like voting out Trump, since it will be seen by Brexit voters as illegitimate and invite a significant backlash that will roil UK politics. Suffering such a backlash is certainly worth it given the impact of Brexit. But should the UK leave the European Union its impact on the UK’s importance to the United States will be lasting.

The EU will be of growing importance to the US, especially now without the UK to help advance or stand up for US interests. A new American administration will also not simply try to rebuild transatlantic relations but will likely finally recognize the growing importance of the European Union on the continent and will engage the EU with an energy that it has not before. When America looks toward Europe it will increasingly turn to Brussels. London will increasingly be and afterthought, a ceremonial stop, while business gets done in Brussels, Berlin and even Paris.

But the decline of the special relationship is also not just about Brexit. The austerity of the Cameron government and the drastic decline of the UK military was widely noticed in Washington. France, interestingly, was becoming America’s military partner of first resort by the end of the Obama administration, as the US supported multiple French operations in Africa. While those operations were taking place, the Cameron government focused on trying to extract more rent on bases the US maintains on UK territories overseas. Precious diplomatic time was squandered by senior British leaders, including Phillip Hammond elevating small issues – ones to be resolved in the bowels of the bureaucracy – to the highest levels of the State Department. While American diplomats were consumed with a resurgent Russia, the rise of a pernicious China, and the fight against ISIS in Syria, the UK’s conservative government was consumed with austerity, with tapping into China’s cash, and getting America to open its wallets. Strategic Britain was strangled by an austerity obsessed conservative government that seemed to express little concern or awareness of Britain’s growing international irrelevance. They lost sight that the “special relationship” was a partnership, requiring both parties to bring something to the table. And the UK increasingly wasn’t.

With Brexit, the UK’s relevance to the United States has declined and if the UK does in fact depart that irrelevance will only grow. The UK will spend its international energies trying to negotiate and cut new economic agreements. It will be an all-consuming international task and it will be pursued by a UK government with a frenetic panic. UK diplomats will constantly be seeking to leverage their “special relationship” with America not just to cut a trade deal with the US (one that has little near term chance of happening) but will also be seeking to get the US to lobby on their behalf with other countries.

Washington will quickly grow tired of just being used in such a way. Engaging with the Brits will soon be met with an eye-roll and be seen as a burden or a chore, not dissimilar to how Washington has seen its engagement with the European Union. In that sense, the UK and the EU will begin to switch places in Washington’s diplomatic outlook. And the “special relationship” will increasingly just be a relationship.


About the author

Max Bergmann is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. He served in the State Department from 2011-2017.



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