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Can the ‘special relationship’ survive Trump?

  • Published at 11:52 pm June 7th, 2019

Probably, but it may need repairs

One has to give credit to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of the UK for being such a dignified and gracious hostess to visiting American president Donald Trump, given that the two could not be more different in their character, personality, and instincts. 

Whereas compassion in substance, empathy in style, and quiet rectitude in instinct has been the hallmark of the head of the House of Windsor, America’s current chief of state -- in a sharp departure from his immediate predecessors -- has made acerbic flamboyance and pugnacious volubility his calling card. 

Thus, special props go to the nonagenarian monarch since she has hosted a dozen American presidents in her long reign, and this one must have been the strangest of them all. Her prime minister may be thinking the same thing. 

The personal chemistry -- sometimes of mere respect and often of deep mutual admiration -- between British prime ministers and American presidents transcends parties and politics on either side of the Atlantic. Famous duos like Thatcher and Reagan, Bush and Blair, Churchill and Roosevelt, are more the norm than the anomaly. 

It is the kind of phenomena that instantly brings to mind the “special relationship” between the UK and the US, going back to the First World War. Will the iconoclasm of Donald Trump’s presidency break it?

I doubt it. 

The Trump presidency -- with its inherent transgression of norms in matters domestic and foreign -- will likely bruise and, perhaps, even batter the famed “special relationship” but it will endure and recoup its losses (unless Britain goes through its own Brexit related upheaval in a self-destroying manner … but that is a different story for a different day).

I base my rather bold and optimistic forecast on a simple axiom: The chemistry between the political and national leaders of the US and Britain is but a symptom of certain multifaceted and enduring bonds that have institutionalized the relationship at a level far more foundational than mere politics and personalities.

Apart from the obvious shared stewardship of the world’s premier language and, to a significant degree, a commonality of shared DNA, there are less immediately apparent ties that bind the two great English-speaking democracies. Those links of consanguinity are regularly refreshed with large numbers of trans-Atlantic marriages (Meghan Markle and Prince Harry are hardly unique!). 

But there is far more, and the common language helps tremendously as a catalyst in the formation of other ties.

Britain remains, for example, among the top five sources of foreign direct investment in the United States while the prime European destination for American companies to establish foreign offices and American students to study abroad is London.  

Even without the formal NATO relationship, the enduring links between military officers of the two countries is well documented with rarely a major conflict in the world, where the two sides have not strategized, planned, and fought on the same side. 

At any given time, hundreds of British and American military officers are training together in each other’s countries on a long-term basis. Such cooperation on the military side is augmented by an equally important -- if not more so -- relationship between the intelligence communities of the two countries, both bilaterally and through the secretive Five Eyes initiative with the three other major English speaking democracies, namely Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. 

The point is that the bilateral relationship between the UK and the US merits the historical designation of “special relationship” because that kind of a link is rare in the annals of modern international affairs, by virtue of being more than merely transactional.  

Rather, at least in the professional, academic, and national security echelons, there is an enduring sociological and institutional connection between people over several generations. 

Though long-standing institutions and the ties they generate and nurture are not immune to atrophy when sustained pressure is brought on them, they are often resilient. It is hard to imagine that even a norm-shattering and volatile president like the current American one can destroy a “special relationship” with such foundations as the one shared by the US and the UK. 

It is certainly within the realm of possibility, and the probability increases if institutions perceptibly weaken in either country or, as is a distinct fear, a Trump-like figure (think Nigel Farage) comes to power in London and tag teams with the current like-minded regime in Washington DC to compromise the norms that keep the “special relationship” humming along.

Having been a student and scholar of Anglophiles and Anglo-American institutions, were I betting man, I’d bet on the “special relationship” surviving Donald Trump, albeit in need of repairs afterwards. 

Esam Sohail is a college administrator and lecturer of social sciences. He writes from Kansas, USA. He can be reached at [email protected]

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