In April, the new James Bond movie will arrive upon a no doubt grateful world. Getting No Time To Die to release has been a convoluted process, involving multiple changes of director, writers, and plotlines, as well as painful accidents to the lead actor. An anachronism to some and part of the national landscape to others, the franchise is at an inflection point. An exercise in bespoke nostalgia whose future is opaque, the brand is torn between fidelity to an old but successful formula and embracing a transformation (a black or female Bond) that risks epic failure for contemporary relevance. As a metaphor for Britain’s contemporary geostrategic neurosis and the moment of reckoning we have reached with our oldest friends, the timing is exquisite.
Despite that regrettable disagreement in 1776, and subsequent conflicts and crises, Americans and Brits tend reflexively to downplay our divides. Charming eccentricities, the narcissism of small differences, shared values and visions have cemented the closest of relationships. Even if this conventional wisdom is more conventional than wise, it persists. But the moment may be upon us when gaping fissures suggest fundamental revision. Whatever sentimental attachment underpinned cold calculations of respective national interests is fast receding. A relationship in decline is about to be recast by a Britain deprived of European Union ties and a U.S. administration devaluing the Transatlantic alliance.
Despite Boris Johnson’s pledge to “get Brexit done” by formally leaving the European Union on January 31, 2020, the promised land of sovereign independence remains a work in progress. The transition period of “Phase II” is revealing less a buccaneering Global Britain than a diminished and divided union. Moreover, London and Washington appear ever more riven. In its core dimensions, the bilateral is tottering on a precipice. As Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) succinctly summarized the UK rejection of U.S. entreaties to exclude the People’s Republic of China from compromising its 5G network: “Here’s the sad truth: our special relationship is less special now that the UK has embraced the surveillance state commies at Huawei. During the Cold War, Margaret Thatcher never contracted with the KGB to save a few pennies.”
But it is not just Huawei forcing rethinks. Multiple pressures, some structural, others contingent, are at work. Unless one or both parties change direction fast, atrophy beckons—to the delight of our mutual adversaries. The ultimate irony is two-fold. First, increasing Anglo-American conflict is reminding Brits of their European affinities just as London is severing its continental bonds: philosophically “Anglo-Saxon,” operationally European. Second, hopes that Boris and Donald might salvage the partnership appear misplaced. Instead, the erstwhile conservative saviors are hastening its demise. Britain is slowly but steadily retreating from the global stage—neither Martian nor Venusian but directionless—adrift in the geostrategic ether betwixt and between what Robert Kagan once termed “paradise and power.” And an America trapped between leading and withdrawing from international order is left with one less dependable ally on which it could rely. Washington can plausibly afford that. But without the twin pillars of a strong relationship with America and EU membership, the world is looking a much more inhospitable place for Britain.
The Sources of British Conduct
Since World War II, the principal drivers of the bilateral were clear. For the United States, the UK offered a major, if declining, asset to amplify its global influence. London joined with Washington in New York (at the United Nations Security Council), Brussels (at NATO and the EU) and the U.S. capital itself (in the IMF, GATT and the WTO). Vietnam aside, the UK was typically at America’s side in the wars Washington fought, providing valuable political cover even when its forces were surplus to American requirements. In intelligence sharing through GCHQ and MI6, nuclear cooperation, diplomacy, trade, foreign direct investment, and multiple expressions of cultural exchange, the partnership achieved a breadth, depth and resilience with few precedents.
For Brits, the dynamics were self-evident to successive Conservative and Labour governments. Empire was done. The United States was dominant. In managing decline, London needed Washington for security, diplomatic, intelligence, and financial ballast. The British recognized that “if you aren’t at the table, you’re probably on the menu.” Unreconciled to Europe and nostalgic for its former strength, the UK took the only logical route forward. Although the least pro-American Prime Minister, Edward Heath, enthusiastically took Britain into the European Union in 1973, mainstream opinion never entertained drawing away from the United States. The mere suggestion was the province of cranks and extremists. If accommodation riled some as resembling sycophancy, such was the price of being chief deputy to the U.S. sheriff.
Despite antagonisms petty and profound, each partner proved more an asset than albatross to the other, calculations eased by the shared external threat of the Soviet Union. After the Cold War’s end, though, the foundations splintered. The notion that the UK could provide a “bridge” between Washington and Brussels eroded as the U.S. and EU pillars weakened. As Brexit showed, millions of Brits dislike the EU, if not Europe, while Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya left a distaste for interventionism. The UK now possesses neither the will nor wallet to project power, with its armed forces a shadow of their former selves. These trends pre-dated Johnson and Trump. But the two leaders are adding impetus to what historians may record as an inevitable parting of the ways.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being Boris
On December 13, 2019, the British general election result saw Jeremy Corbyn, the most dim-witted but dangerous candidate for the highest office, comprehensively rejected in the Labour Party’s fourth consecutive defeat and its worst result since 1935. With the Tories winning 365 seats to Labour’s 203, Johnson secured an 80-seat House of Commons majority, larger than that of any Conservative PM since Margaret Thatcher in 1987. The greatest threat to U.S.-UK partnership was seemingly routed.
But hopes for revived Transatlantic comity have been rapidly and rudely disabused. Several distinct but overlapping instances of Anglo-American tension have rocked the partnership. U.S. rejection of a UK extradition request—for Anne Sacoolas, suspected of causing the death of British teenager Harry Dunn in a traffic accident outside a U.S. military base in Northumberland in August 2019—highlighted what Johnson conceded was an “imbalance” between the allies. British proposals for a digital sales tax on U.S. corporations such as Google, Apple, and Facebook, prompting U.S. threats of retaliatory tariffs on UK exports, provided another rift. London’s muted endorsement of the Trump Administration’s Iran strategy, when the UK was not notified in advance of the extrajudicial killing of Qassem Soleimani, offered another instance of growing discord. Reviving the partnership was always going to be a Sisyphean task. But, at a time when push is coming to shove over a trade deal, such tensions double down on disharmony. Ricky Gervais’s Golden Globes monologue was a wonderfully rich British contribution to American life but, as a template for British diplomacy, it was not ideal. In making a concerted effort to distance his government from Trump, Boris risks alienating a Washington that has bigger strategic fish to fry without being rewarded by a Brussels that also has more urgent geopolitical priorities than Britain.
Most important for the longer term, though, is the Huawei dispute—a rift emblematic of the broader Western fissures that Beijing is eagerly exploiting. Regarded as “high risk” because of its intimate links to the Chinese state, the company will be permitted to build “non-core” parts of Britain’s 5G network, infrastructure critical to new technologies that rely on constant connectivity such as driverless cars—with its market share capped at 35 percent. Although the Trump Administration was publicly understated in response, privately it was fuming. At the start of February, a group of congressional Republicans introduced a resolution condemning the UK decision, arguing compellingly that, “Our special relationship with the UK is built on our shared commitment to freedom and security. The CCP—and by extension Huawei—is an affront to these core democratic principles.”
After the Huawei decision, Beijing has recently bid to build a new high-speed rail link from London to the North of England, in addition to providing nuclear power stations to the national grid. Much as David Cameron previously championed the UK joining the Asian Investment Bank against U.S. pressure, so Boris was convinced of the need for a closer trading relationship with Beijing. What he did not count on was having to choose between the United States and China. Quite why he chose as he did remains a mystery. As MP Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, rightly noted, Britain did not “take back control” from Europe in order to then surrender it to the Chinese.
Understandably, buyer’s remorse at the Johnson phenomenon is seemingly growing in Washington. In drawing inexact but insistent parallels between U.S. and UK politics, it was tempting to read into the Boris ascendancy an echo of Trump, with a comparably disruptive impetus to business-as-usual. And while Boris sees himself as a “liberal Tory,” his profoundly unconservative disruption has assumed an increasingly Trumpian-style authoritarian cast, directed more at traditional institutions—the Treasury, the BBC, the press, the courts, the civil service—than anything else.
But Boris and Trump remain dissimilar characters. Insecure opportunists, narcissists, prone to flights of rhetorical fancy and untroubled by personal failings, ambition and personal glory animate both. But whereas Trump remains an outsider with an outsized chip on his shoulder, Johnson is an establishment figure straight out of Evelyn Waugh. Where Trump cares nothing for the party that has proven his vehicle to power, Johnson is a Tory through and through. Whereas Trump’s Faustian bargain was to demand unflinching loyalty in return for endorsement of a conventional Republican agenda, Boris has offered his party electoral success in return for abandoning core tenets of conservative faith. Early indications suggest disenchantment to those for whom conservatism implies fiscal responsibility, low taxation, and limited state intervention. But Johnson’s evident calculus is that the economic damage that a thin trade deal with Brussels will inflict requires looser fiscal policy, to protect the worst-hit sectors that lent him their votes to “get Brexit done” in 2019.
Brexit has been an earthquake that has shaken old orthodoxies to their foundations. But while earthquakes clear the space for rebuilding, earthquakes do not rebuild. Agency is necessary to reassemble structures anew. As far as the global stage goes, it has been an inauspicious start. On February 15, it was announced that a planned visit to Washington had been cancelled, allegedly because Trump had slammed the phone down on Boris in an “apoplectic” rage over Huawei. A visit by senior Australian MPs to their UK counterparts was also cancelled due to their fury at the British Foreign Secretary’s patronizing tone when he was last down under. No senior UK ministerial presence graced the World Economic Forum or, more importantly, the Munich Security Conference, seemingly confirming its theme of “Westlessness” applied to the West itself. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper explicitly mentioned Britain when noting that allies who did not assist the U.S. in its existential struggle with China will pay a heavy price. Nancy Pelosi also pointedly noted of the UK’s absence, “I hope it’s not an indication of their commitment to multilateralism.” But, as Edward Lucas trenchantly observed of emerging “UK-lessness,” “the real question is not why British government representatives stayed away, but what they would have said had they come.”
Does London Have a U.S. Strategy?
Ever since its post-1945 decline began, Britain has aimed to “punch above its weight.” That goal now seems increasingly elusive, absent some serious slimming. The return of great power competition was an unpropitious moment for the UK to go it alone. But domestic politics, not geopolitics, decided the 2016 referendum and 2019 election. We are where we are. To craft a sustainable long-term strategy that staves off strategic insolvency and matches capabilities to commitments, the UK must choose between accepting greater international risks, reducing its commitments abroad, or increasing the resources accorded foreign and national security policy. Since there appears minimal prospect of a serious increase in the defense budget, accepting greater risks and reducing what commitments remain offer more politically palatable options. Thus far, London’s indecision seems final.
The Johnson strategy, such as it is, seems premised upon declaring victory first and fighting the battles later. Like the Global War on Terror after George W. Bush and Tony Blair left office, the Brexit lexicon of the past four years—”dynamic alignment,” “level playing field”—has been banished from public discourse. The symbolism of Brexit being “done” can for the time being obscure the dreary substance yet to be delivered. The latter, safely relegated to the business pages, permits Brits to revel in liberty regained—albeit that the nation looks and feels, to quote David Byrne of the Talking Heads, the “same as it ever was.”
UK-EU negotiations commence in March. A trade deal that Parliament has legislated must be complete by the end of 2020, modeled on that of the EU and Canada, will suffice while the details of multiple other dossiers from energy to security are worked out later. But the EU has already ruled out such a deal, fearful of being undercut by a UK that—unlike Canada—is right on its borders. Johnson is working for a truce, not a return to the trenches. Facing a Labour Party finessing its Great Awokening—the transformation from a serious alternative government into a rolling academic sociology seminar of avant-garde zeitgeist-surfers—Boris has few worries from that intersectional quarter. It will be his backbenches that provide such opposition as counts.
But the signals the government offers are far from coherent. On the one hand, Johnson has insisted the United Kingdom will not be a rule-taker—Britain didn’t leave the EU to subsequently slavishly follow every new regulation issued by Brussels to stay aligned. Unlike his predecessor’s Cabinet, the government comprises senior figures who believe in the Brexit project, even if the reclamation of self-government entails economic pain. Even so, it is a measure of the strategic confusion that while some worry his stance is designed to bring about the “no-deal” Singapore-on-the-Thames result that market-oriented Brexiteers long craved, others on the nationalist right fear Johnson is preparing to capitulate and accept a soft Brexit. The UK cannot align with more than one trading system, either the EU or the U.S. one. But whether any stable equilibrium can be reached is moot. Will the UK insist on denying EU access to its fishing waters when Brussels can close the market that consumes 70 percent of British-caught fish? Or drive a harder bargain on financial services in response? Moreover, the bandwidth simply does not exist to allow London to conclude both an EU and a U.S. trade deal in nine months.
As Meghan Markle can testify, British “fairy-tale” stories often end in disappointment. Brexit has reduced the situational awareness that provided London with a rich and rapid source of information exchange and international intelligence. Constant contact with EU partners is no more. The UK government is therefore embarked upon an International Security and Defence Review, to report in the autumn, the latest since 2015 and billed as the most important since 1991. Welcome as this reflection may be, whether it will truly engage first principles—much less reconcile what the UK wants, needs, and can afford with the broadest public support—is uncertain. Neither the referendum nor the election featured a serious debate over Britain’s strategic future.
Caught between the parallel strategic realities of the United States and Europe, London seems to have little in the way of a coherent response to its self-imposed predicament of un-splendid isolation. Few precedents exist for a major industrialized nation departing a larger regional trading bloc. Nor, for Washington, is there an obvious precedent in terms of a core ally whose military utility is much reduced and whose commercial allure is beset by problems aplenty. Whether and how the declension in the relationship can be arrested is doubtful. One path might involve repeatedly getting Trump—the “un-Obama”—hoisted on his own petard. Obama famously declared in 2016 that the UK would be at the “back of the queue” for a trade deal if it left the EU. Would it be imprudent to remind the President that too strong a bargaining stance—his “escalate to de-escalate” approach—might position him, and us, exactly where Obama predicted?
It may be that a downsized world role is eminently acceptable to most Brits, many of whom cannot recall the Cold War, let alone World War II. But that co-exists with a reluctance to abandon the established guarantors of UK security, most notably the United States and NATO. Whether and how that ineluctable tension can be resolved is likely to prove painful. Some concede that the guiding assumptions of British post-Cold War strategy are no longer sound. But that co-exists with a faith—no other word seems adequate—that while London cannot be a superpower like the United States or China, it can still exercise global influence in ways that Japan and Germany cannot. For now, however, the national mood evokes Dunkirk more than D-Day. British delusions of grandeur are inexorably submitting to anxious aspirations for adequacy.
Wherever it ends up, post-Brexit Britain will have to work far harder than so far to get its message across and participate meaningfully in international debates and decision-making. Unless it wishes to compound its worsening global image, London needs to upgrade, not relegate, its engagement. Underlying the current UK non-discussion is a sense that, somehow, the United States could not or would not sever its ties, or that the Trump approach is more aberration than the new normal. Such complacency reflects multiple influences: the left-liberal bias of public life; the lack of rigorous analysis of U.S. politics; and the intellectual rigidity that devalues genuine exchange of political ideas for heated affirmations of rival tribal identities. Whatever its origins, though, the risk is real that London finds itself unmoored. “Global Britain” appears missing in action, a vaunting ambition in recessional, accompanied by a “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,” as Matthew Arnold put it in “Dover Beach.” Unfortunately, developments in Washington echo such ill-judged short-termism.
Does Washington Have a UK strategy?
Kissinger once observed of his White House years that U.S. relations with the UK were so intimate that he didn’t need to think about whether to consult London. The automaticity was built in. Those were the days. But just as London is having to think anew, so the United States must confront the challenge that a close ally is way out of its comfort zone. At a moment of global disorder and disunited states, how much political capital merits investment in maintaining the partnership is as vexatious a question in Washington as Westminster.
Although the current White House no doubt feels confident that it can prevail in any game of chicken with the UK, Trump risks becoming Exhibit Number One in the “Who lost Britain?” debate to come. The President has said many positive things about Boris and Britain (describing the relationship as “the greatest alliance the world has ever known” during his UK state visit in 2019). But while he has his British admirers, opinion polls showed that only 21 percent had a positive view of Trump in 2019. Barely one in four approved of his job performance. By early 2020, the President’s UK approval rating was minus 49 percent. Outlandish rhetoric and ill-judged interventions in UK politics have backfired. Indulgence of autocrats in Moscow and Pyongyang bemuses as much as a retreat from the Paris climate accord befuddles. Trump’s obsession with the U.S. trade balance threatens to undercut strategic partnerships from the UK to India. Weaponizing tariffs is hardly the stuff of existing or potential allies. Even a conventional U.S. leader would have found the British reluctant deputies now. In an American presidential election year, any British administration worth its salt would hedge its bets. But even—especially—if Trump secures a second term, London cannot fathom what mercurial path lies ahead. Making adversaries uncertain of your intentions is sometimes a wise strategic move. Rendering your allies entirely in the dark is arguably less prudent.
For decades, the stability of the bilateral, and the UK’s folding into “Europe,” made a bespoke UK policy redundant. That is unfortunate since the answer to the inescapable question facing Washington—what price to exact from the UK for continuing close partnership?—would benefit from wise counsel. (Sebastian Gorka doesn’t count.) Trump Republicans who view the UK as a “red state,” able and willing to join the United States in making the special relationship great again, should pause. The UK public is certainly not in the same place as the British intelligentsia, much of which will never be persuaded that unarmed goodwill is useless against armed malice or that peace requires a capacity for violence at least equal to the violence of the looming threats. Nonetheless, Brits are now wary of military adventurism. Moreover, even if the union remains intact—which, given the pressure for another referendum on Scottish independence and the rise of Sinn Fein in Ireland’s most recent election, is far from a given—London cannot offer in security what it once did. Moreover, in terms of public attitudes on health care, abortion, firearms, and so much more, the UK is—in American terms—about as blue as it gets. Politically, Boris is closer to most Democrats than most Republicans.
Trump’s abiding belief in deals over ideals has convinced many that no special relationships with the United States exist any longer. Even among the more fogeyish elements of British public life, a hardening of attitudes is discernible. The distinguished military historian, Max Hastings, for example, counselled his compatriots in January that “We must keep our distance from America”:
The U.S. never does favors in return for services rendered. At every turn of world affairs its behavior is driven by self-interest. There is nothing wrong with this but it remains a truth from which successive British prime ministers flinch. Again and again, they acquiesce in rash U.S. policies through fear of offending the White House or hopes of advantage which are unfulfilled.
Since Johnson probably shares this perspective, it would be foolish for U.S. policymakers to discount entirely the “low risk, high impact” prospect of a dedicated British retreat—even if the PM sees this as a temporary, tactical withdrawal, a bracing few years in which the partnership can benefit from benign neglect and London going rogue. Many British conservatives forget that during the 1970s and 1980s, at the Cold War’s height, Enoch Powell (the more intellectually gifted forerunner of Nigel Farage)—arch English nationalist and populist opponent of UK membership of the European Community—advocated the UK aligning with the Soviet Union rather than the United States, since it was Russia that had been the ultimate guarantee of Britain’s survival as an independent nation-state in 1812, 1914, and 1942. It is one of the more quixotic qualities of unrestrained nationalism that at times of stress it can lead nations to form strange alliances and espy surprising adversaries.
As far as the Trump Administration is concerned, there appears a reluctant acceptance among its principals of a long, slow goodbye. Exactly how best Washington can use its formidable resources to incentivize and forewarn London otherwise is a question for careful calibration. The matter is that much more acute since on both sides of the pond, pressures to de-militarize foreign policy are growing. In the UK, the Brexit rupture is compounding the material underspend and psychological retreat from a proper fighting force. In the United States, millions are being spent to promote “restraint.” We remain some distance from the full flowering of strategic minimalism, but the direction of much intellectual travel is clear.
One way or another, the non-military dimensions of the U.S.-UK relationship are likely to loom much larger in the coming decade or so. Whether for good or for ill depends on the choices—and the frames shaping them—that end up prevailing in Washington and London. The stakes on trade are, therefore, especially high. The United Kingdom is a mature democracy and its people well appreciate our asymmetry: a special relationship does not mean a special trade deal. But any deal that is transparently unbalanced or entails maximal UK concessions for minimal U.S. reciprocity will be an impossible political sell. Although sectoral and state-level agreements may prove relatively unproblematic to conclude, any comprehensive deal will reflect and reinforce the broader shape of the bilateral to come. Since congressional ratification is necessary, not only will core elements implicate powerful domestic constituencies—market access, agriculture, finance, pharmaceutical pricing in the National Health Service—but lawmakers’ responsiveness to other concerns (Northern Ireland, Huawei) will throw yet more potential roadblocks into the mix. Sceptics might suggest that a signed, sealed, and delivered trade deal looks only marginally more plausible than Palestinian agreement to Trump’s Middle East peace plan.
Is it unwise to adopt too Cassandra-like a perspective on a partnership that has endured for decades? U.S.-UK relations will no doubt survive the latest tensions. Both parties have too much to lose to allow the bilateral to collapse into mutual recriminations. Perhaps. But if Johnson is rehearsing for the role of Founding Father, it seems to be of a Disunited Kingdom. The leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party is presiding over the seemingly inevitable break-up of a centuries-old Union. The champion of a special relationship with the United States risks alienating Washington when London most needs its support. The erstwhile liberal Tory who vanquished the far-left statist Corbyn is abandoning fiscal restraint to empower the state and redistribute income to the left behind. For so long as political correctness inhibits the left’s electability, this is probably a winning domestic strategy. As an international gamble in the UK’s national interest, it stretches credulity. Even Machiavelli recognized that politics is as much about persuasion as pugilism.
Shaken, Not Stirred?
When Nixon flew to China for the first time in 1972, it is said that he wrote a note on the plane that delineated “what are our interests, what are their interests, and where do they overlap?” The overlap was where serious negotiations could begin.
Simple as this sounds, it is perhaps worth re-visiting now exactly what the U.S. and UK share as we look ahead to the 2020s and beyond. If our interests no longer dovetail as they once did, a drawing apart may benefit us both. But if there remains substantial commonality in interests, as well as vision, then the governments on both sides of the Atlantic require some dedicated efforts to renew a partnership that has served both well. There is no time for complacency about just how precarious a once-precious partnership has become. There is, alas, more than enough time for it to die.