Forget the past: US-UK relationship must adapt to remain truly ‘special’
A few weeks back, the United Kingdom’s distinguished Ambassador to the United States Kim Darroch found himself in hot water. Sure, what he said was far kinder than what the “mainstream media” has said and continues to say about President Donald Trump, but he’s a diplomat. His diplomatic secrecy was shattered by an unknown mischief maker in the British government, designed to take him out as Ambassador to the U.S. and embarrass both his government and President Trump. The ambassador’s resignation confirms the mischief maker was at a minimum, partially successful. While the episode was mostly trivial and somewhat amusing (except to the ambassador and her majesty’s government in Whitehall), a more substantive reflection on the overall “special relationship” is now warranted.
Years ago, Winston Churchill said “if we are together, nothing is impossible. If we are divided all will fail. I therefore preach continually the doctrine of the fraternal association of our two peoples . . . for the sake of service to mankind and for the honor that comes to those who faithfully serve great causes.” While the current age does not equal the urgency of World War II, Churchill’s central point remains instructive — when the United States and the United Kingdom remain strong and closely — even specially — allied, the world is a stronger and safer place.
But how to maintain and strengthen our bond? The question is more difficult to answer than in many years. The European Union has for decades made the UK more Eurozone-focused, and British elites more attuned to focus on Europe, due to geographic proximity, cultural affinity, self-interest, and yes, to some degree through a jealousy of and rivalry with its stronger, larger American cousin. Brexit has now shattered an elite, Euro-centric perspective, and the ugly, disjointed aftermath of Brexit equally so. The pivot to Europe has mostly failed; it is clearly urgent for the British people and the Atlantic Alliance that a pivot back to America commence with urgency and due dispatch, for several reasons.
First, the British economy is threatened by Brexit. Many financial firms and companies are shifting focus and operations to the continent, at the expense of the UK. The strength of the pound and the British economy face a grave economic threat.
Second, the U.S. and U.K. must have the structure of a bilateral free trade agreement ready to go, irrespective of a hard or soft Brexit. A free trade agreement looks to the future and British advancement, while Brexit and the EU look mostly to the past. Stronger economic ties of substance, through free trade and renewed bilateral focus, are imperative for British global economic strength.
Third, the British military is a shadow of its former self — it barely meets its NATO funding requirements and is regularly strained by what in the past would have been mild commitments of military force. To be a strong partner for the U.S., the British military must have the funding and personnel to be a viable force in global security. Currently, that goal is optimistic at best, absent enhanced funding and prioritization by future governments.
Fourth, rumblings of disunity can be more than faintly heard in both Scotland and Northern Ireland. A strong United Kingdom must maintain its northern kingdoms — if England and Wales were to be ripped apart from its northern brethren, not only will the United Kingdom be no more, but the remaining members of the Kingdom will be further diminished in world affairs. This cannot be, for the well-being of both countries.
A bilateral free trade agreement can be the path forward to more prosperity through trade and ties not only with the financial center of London, but with the rest of the country, for the good of the hinterlands, restless with talk of disunity and economic jealousy of London. Closer ties with the U.S. economically can benefit all of the U.K., especially those regions most in need of economic overseas alliances.
Fifth, ties among the other members of the commonwealth, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, must be amplified beyond their current levels with the United States and their mother country. The U.K.’s strength as a partner to America is enhanced through both countries reaffirming and emphasizing a global partnership with the other three.
There is much tactical and ephemeral noise in trans-Atlantic policy today, including the embarrassing departure of the ambassador. The U.S. and U.K. must ignore triviality and focus on strategic signal — in a volatile world beset with regional rivalries and conflict, a strong U.S./U.K. partnership bolsters global stability and western values, and has positive ripple effects for all countries affected by the partnership.
There will be British voices fearful and disdainful of their cousins across the Atlantic, and loath to ally more closely than ever, especially with the unpopularity of President Trump in Great Britain and suspicions of U.S. reliability engendered in part by his perceived volatility. This is nonsense and born of the elitist and self-destructive tendencies witnessed with the multi-year, inept execution of a full Brexit.
To allay these concerns, America should not bask in its greater economic and military global might; instead, the U.S. should eagerly and magnanimously broker further economic and military ties with the U.K., in a manner to draw closer with confidence, not have Great Britain shrink back through distrust, uncertainty, and post-Brexit shock. The world both needs and deserves a new, improved and modernized “special relationship,” an example for trans-national alliance leading to a better, more prosperous bilateral relationship and world.
It is time to seize the day, rather than bemoan the recent past or fear the future. Surely enough seasoned, prudent leaders in both governments will come to this realization and act. If not, leading lights outside the government in both countries must demand decisive action immediately.
George Seay is Chairman of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin, and Chairman of Annandale Capital, a global investment firm that has done extensive business in the United Kingdom.