US-UK Relations: Reasons for Optimism

December 8, 2016

Key points

  • As 2016 draws to a close, it is increasingly clear that Donald Trump’s victory may provide unexpected opportunities for the UK in what remains its most important relationship.
  • There is widespread American support for a US-UK free deal which is shared by the President-elect, his core team and the Republican establishment in Washington.
  • Britain has an opportunity to be at the “front of the queue” but it cannot depend upon hackneyed cliché about the “special relationship”. The UK’s best strategy is to present itself as a reliable burden-sharer and close ally in the likely rebalancing of the international economic and security system from early 2017.


Having sounded the death-knell of the Trans Pacific Partnership, then flouted diplomatic protocol in dealing directly with the Taiwanese president, it is clear that President-elect Donald Trump is not waiting for his inauguration to re-set the terms of America’s approach to the world. Meanwhile, having been taken by surprise at his victory, and unsettled by many of his campaign pronouncements – particularly on NATO and Russia – the British foreign policy establishment has taken some time to recover its nerve.

It was into this void that Nigel Farage was able to pose as an unlikely conduit to the new regime in the immediate aftermath of the election. On one level, Farage’s encounter with reporters outside Trump Tower was a familiar piece of street theatre. On another, it did tell us something about the brave new world in which we find ourselves. That Trump Tower has remained the locus for senior cabinet level “auditions” suggests that there are certain things we are going to have to get used to, and that the Trump approach to the business of politics will not follow the established grooves.

For much of 2016, the prospect of a Trump victory was treated as a “nightmare scenario” among America’s allies in Europe. Universities and think tanks hosted many lectures and public events under that banner. So far, the evidence is that the unscripted and unembellished tone that characterised his campaign will continue into the presidency. Adjusting to this will require more agility and dynamism in UK foreign policy than we have grown accustomed to. Nonetheless, as 2016 draws to a close, there is good reason to believe that Trump’s victory may provide unexpected opportunities for the UK in what remains by far its more important relationship.

This requires looking beyond sound and fury. There are a number of consistent themes in Trump’s worldview which are broadly shared in the United States. One is a feeling that America gets a “bad deal” from existing multilateral arrangements in trade and security. The second is that America’s existing approach to the rise of China is inadequate. A third is a notion that is gaining traction and that one day might form the basis of a “Trump doctrine”: it is, simply speaking, that America’s international business can be conducted with greater efficacy, and that bi-lateral relations are the clue to that. Much has been made of the expected rapprochement with Russia. But the first beneficiary of this new emphasis on bilateralism is just as likely to be the UK.

Some of the warmth that Trump has expressed towards Britain is instinctive. Among his core team, there is certainly a feeling that the UK and the US are on the same political clock. On June 24, the day after the Brexit vote, Trump’s presidential campaign issued a statement welcoming the result, and pledging “to strengthen our ties with a free and independent Britain, deepening our bonds in commerce, culture and mutual defense.” It added, “The whole world is more peaceful and stable when our two countries – and our two peoples – are united together, as they will be under a Trump Administration.”

Yet the idea of a reinvigorated British-American relationship has broader appeal within the Republican Party. Back in April, when he was still contesting the primaries against Trump, Ted Cruz also wrote an article for The Timesentitled “Britain will be at the front of the queue for a US trade deal”. While Trump and Cruz have often styled themselves as Washington outsiders, this is one issue on which there appears to be a large consensus on all wings of the Republican Party.

More specifically, the idea of a US-UK trade deal has firm foundations inside the beltway. In the wake of the Brexit referendum, several Republican lawmakers told Politico that they would be “more than happy to pursue a U.S.-United Kingdom deal once the smoke from an EU-U.K. split clears.” Senate Finance Committee member Johnny Isakson stated “I’d be happy to negotiate a bilateral agreement.” The House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady said, “We should now begin to discuss a modern, new trade agreement with the U.K that not only continues but expands the level of trade between our two nations.”

Following on from this, on 30 June, Republican Senators Mike Lee (Utah) and Tom Cotton (Arkansas) introduced the United Kingdom Trade Continuity Act, a bill that instructs the President to start negotiations on a US-UK trade agreement very quickly. “The United Kingdom has stood with us at the front lines of battle, and it should therefore be at the front of the line for a free trade agreement that benefits both our nations,” Sen. Cotton said, “At this time of transition for our ancestral ally, it is in our deepest interest to reaffirm the Special Relationship.”

There is much more substance to this development than expressions of generosity to a beleaguered old friend. The renewed emphasis on bi-lateral trading relationships has grown out of an exasperation with existing multi-lateral arrangements. In an October interview with the BBC, Trump’s trade advisor, Dan DiMicco, promised a radical overhaul of the global free trade system. “These are not idle threats,” he insisted, “Things have gotten so bad that we will leave Nafta , WTO and the Korean Free Trade Agreement if we can’t get a fair deal.” With the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) proposals “on hold”, DiMicco went on to suggest that Britain was “America’s friend” and would be “first in line” for a trade deal. When asked if the US would consider doing a deal with Britain ahead of the EU, Mr DiMicco said: “Absolutely.”

In a similar spirit, writing in The Times on 15 November, John Bolton, tipped to take high office in the Trump administration, suggested that “with some imagination and resolve, London and Washington can fashion a new economic relationship, perhaps involving Canada, with the potential for significant economic growth.” Four days later, on 19 November, former Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain also suggested that, as one of America’s most long-standing and reliable allies, that Britain could agree the terms of a free trade deal with the US – if not sign one – before the EU does.

Most importantly, on 26 November, it was reported that arguably the key dealmaker in Washington – House Speaker Paul Ryan – had stated that “America should do a free trade deal with Britain” and that “such an agreement would show the UK that America remains an “indispensable ally”. “We have a special relationship, and I think that does mean we should have a trade agreement with … Great Britain.” While these comments were made in the wake of Brexit, a spokesman for Mr Ryan confirmed that this was still his position.

As this most eventful year draws to a close, then, there are reasons for optimism. Rather than resort to hackneyed cliché about the “special relationship”, however, US-UK relations must be crafted around these broader changes likely to occur in the international system. This will require us to consider what is to be preserved, and what might have to be jettisoned, from the post-1945 order that Britain and America did so much to create. Tellingly, in his recent speech at Chatham House, Boris Johnson left the door open to an adjustment of the existing global order, while stressing that Britain must try to remain as closely involved in the process as possible.

When it comes to international affairs, the good grace of friends and allies – even “special” ones – is a finite resource. One reason why the mood music in Washington bodes well for a US-UK trade deal is because the UK has proved itself a more robust ally than others. A persistent concern raised by Trump, but also by President Obama, is that of “free riding” under America’s security umbrella. As this narrative gains momentum, the fact that the UK government has adopted an increasingly robust stance on defence spending collective security since the 2015 general election serves it well. Although the dividends are not always immediately obvious, this is the ballast on which lasting relationships are not only built, but revived. Chasing phantoms – such as a “more European” foreign policy in the wake of Brexit – are an unwelcome distraction from this.

After the flurry of uncertainty, there are signs that the nettle is being grasped. At an event last week in Washington, the British Ambassador Sir Kim Darroch announced that one of the UK’s two new supercarriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth, would sail through the South China Sea on her maiden deployment in 2020. This was presented to the American audience as part of a shared commitment to uphold free navigation of the seas – something that has been at the heart of the Anglo-American version of international security for over a century. In the field of security, as well as free trade, there is business to be done.

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