In my first term at university I attended a debate at the Cambridge Union entitled ‘This House believes the Special Relationship is over’. When the debate closed I walked proudly, almost unthinkingly, with the no’s through the right door into the division lobby. Our relationship may have been under strain. Yet in my mind it remained fundamentally beneficial to both parties, the logical culmination of our shared history and values, culture exchange and crucially our mutual respect. The Special Relationship may have taken a knock, but it was ultimately strong as ever.
This view has been completely reversed by the events of the last few weeks. The secret briefs submitted by Sir Kim Darroch, our ambassador to the US, to the UK Government were leaked. And President Trump decided to respond, characteristically, on Twitter. For his frank, insightful and fundamentally accurate descriptions of the Trump White House’s internal operations as ‘chaotic’ and ‘inept’ (it is important to remember that at no point did his comments pass into personal criticism of the President) he was branded ‘a very stupid guy’ who the US would no longer do business with. Two days later talks between Liam Fox, our Secretary of State for International Trade, and US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross were cancelled without warning. A day later Sir Kim had resigned as our ambassador, mere months before his planned retirement.
Theresa May was quick to publicly announce her continued support for Sir Kim in his role as ambassador, and the continued importance of civil servants giving their unvarnished opinions. Yet in the same breath she also furiously back-peddled to disassociate herself from his conclusions. ‘The selective extracts leaked do not reflect the closeness of, and the esteem in which we hold, the relationship’ she said. Boris Johnson, the favourite to succeed Mrs May as Prime Minister, was even less robust, refusing to confirm that he would maintain Sir Kim in post if he won the Conservative leadership election at the end of this month. Neither one of them denounced President Trump’s insulting comments. When Sir Kim resigned, he referred directly to a lack of support from Mr Johnson as one of his reasons for doing so.
Last week we witnessed one of the most cowardly and humiliating performances by our country’s leading politicians, as they clambered over one another in their haste to kowtow to the immature protestations of President Trump. One does not have to dislike him personally or disagree with his political convictions to appreciate that Sir Kim’s analysis was nothing less than objectively accurate. Trump’s White House is a mess. His is an administration in flux characterised by staffing issues and his unique brand of government by Twitter – no ordered decision-making process appears to exist. The sad reality is that most of Britain’s political establishment feels exactly the same way as Sir Kim. Yet they lack the basic courage to say so publicly. One struggles to imagine Winston Churchill or Mrs Thatcher remaining so tight lipped when the integrity of their diplomatic service was on the line. What has been made painstakingly clear by these events is that our current politicians have a very different conception of the Special Relationship from that which has served both parties so well in the past.
American foreign policy in the modern age is increasingly independent; its alliances are based on self-interest with America firmly entrenched in the dominant role. Yet despite all this ours has always been a relationship of equals. What has distinguished our special relationship is the genuine respect and warmth of feeling that America feels for its cousins across the Atlantic, founded on our long cultural exchange and their endearing love for all things British. America appreciates our experience on the world stage, our ability to inform their policy and ingratiate their nation, comparatively new to the role of big kid on the block, with partners and powers we have maintained relationships with for generations. We play the valued part of over-the-hill former champion-turned-mentor to the new rising star. Mutual reverence, they for our past achievements and we for their current might, define our uniquely close and reciprocal partnership.
Our politicians have completely forgotten this. By failing to appreciate the historical reasons that America shows us such affection we have led ourselves to believe that we are just an ordinary ally, expected to consistently exhibit our usefulness or risk being cast off. We act like the guest simply happy to be invited along for the ride rather than the childhood best friend. This has created something of a vicious circle. Our growing deference has created a vacuum in our relationship which America has filled by becoming more demanding, tipping the balance against us. And our growing apprehension to speak truth to power, to given the very same open and honest advice that Sir Kim ironically lost his post over, has actually made our contribution to our partnership less valuable. America has plenty of yes men, countries like Israel, Costa Rica and the Philippines. By denigrating our alliance to this level we have removed much of what made our relationship special.
This trend had until very recently been disguised by the continued magnanimity of America itself. We may have forgotten our importance as the USA’s ally of choice, but their leaders had not. Bush and Obama consciously cultivated our support internationally, most prominently for their wars in the Middle East, and the Special Relationship seemed stronger than ever. In reality we were not necessarily supporting the USA because we shared their objectives and analysis of these situations, but because we were terrified that refusal to assist would lead them to abandon us and look elsewhere.
The arrival of Mr Trump on the scene has for the first time brought forth an American president who not only does not recognise our particular value as allies, but sees little use for allies at all. He has repeatedly lashed out at Britain, be that his derogatory remarks about crime in London or our own Prime Minister. Regardless as to whether you agree or not with his views, it is not the place of any world leader, particularly a supposed friend, to address us in these terms. We should have had the self-respect and dignity to stand up to his bullying, to say that whilst we remain friends with the United States its President is an international embarrassment whose insults degrade his office and threaten our partnership, and that who our ambassador is, is a decision for our nation alone. Instead we capitulated to his histrionics and allowed an increasingly unreliable ally to dictate who heads our embassy.
Our current foreign policy context goes some way to explaining our humiliating decision. Our weakened international position after Brexit, as we approach a messy divorce with our alternative allies in the EU, has led many competent and respectable politicians to choose to throw ourselves on the mercy of the US. But with Trump’s America First ideology in the White House this will not work. All the Darroch Affair has done is expose our growing international isolation and denigrate our Special Relationship that was once the envy of the world. Our politicians sacrificed integrity and reasoning, the very things which have made us such an important ally of America, for short term political expediency. I can only hope that their shamelessness in doing so is tempered by considerable private embarrassment.