As U.S. President Donald Trump proclaims “America First” and Britain hums along to the words of “Rule Britannia,” can a special relationship still exist between two states that seem to have decided to draw back within themselves?
In both of these countries, a repositioning of global roles is being undertaken by a suddenly dominant political group of populists. And they are locked in what promises to be a long war with the previously dominant political and intellectual groups that are liberal and globalist.
Because of this dynamic, Britain and the United States are bound – one might say doomed – to remain in a special relationship for one of the best of reasons: They will need each other.
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Britain’s need is obvious, and not just in the wake of this week's attack near Parliament. In disengaging from the European Union, it may not retain privileged access to that single market as a trade partner. One columnist proposed that it pay a large leaving “fine” – a kind of bribe – in exchange for continued membership, which might work.
Britain must find alternatives, and the United States is the greatest of these. Team Trump’s assurances that Britain will be at the head of the line for a trade deal is a large relief.
The new U.S. administration will need Britain too, although Trump may not realize how much. Britain has been dismissed in the past as merely a medium between the United States and the rest of the world: In 1962, then Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave a speech in which he argued that “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role…. attempting to be a broker between the United States and Russia, [it] has seemed to conduct policy as weak as its military power”.
But that was another time.
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Trump has come to office scorning a range of institutions – NATO, the EU, the United Nations – which he will need, or at least need not to be hostile to him and the United States.
British officials are still pushing forward issues at these institutions. This week British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson came to New York to chair a U.N. Security Council meeting on the war in Somalia and famine in South Sudan and host an event on female empowerment. (Johnson also met with senior U.S. officials in Washington, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.)
Trump’s skepticism about the effectiveness of U.N. interventions and missions can be justified. Its raison d’etre is “floundering” and a cut in its resources, threatened by the United States, which pays 22 percent of its budget and 30 percent of its peacekeeping costs, may focus its attention on needed reforms. If its members can agree to a reform agenda, Britain would be a necessary ally to help execute it. And the fact that Britain remains active on humanitarian and liberal causes provides a link for Trump should he wish, or need, to use it.
British Prime Minister Theresa May has been criticized, including by some of her own MPs, for “cozying up” to the U.S. president and for her reluctance to condemn his travel ban on selected Muslim-majority states.
Yet she can do more than be a critic. Focusing Trump’s radicalism on issues which need fresh thinking and close evaluation could help not just the profile of both states, but the running of the global system. It would be a curious outcome for two states which have been accused of withdrawing from the world, but one which is now possible.