July 16, 2018

IntelBrief: The Strained U.S./U.K. Relationship

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, gestures while speaking during their meeting with with British Prime Minister Theresa May, right, at Chequers, in Buckinghamshire, England, Friday, July 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais).
  • Last week President Trump visited the United Kingdom and met with British Prime Minister May.
  • Characteristic of nearly all his meetings with Western leaders, President Trump’s visit was marked by contentious rhetoric.
  • The degree to which President Trump personalizes international relations has generated instability in what were long-stable alliances.
  • By making geopolitical alliances personal, rather than strategic, President Trump has set the world order on edge.


Since World War Two, a U.S. President’s visit to the United Kingdom has been relatively noncontroversial. Similar to many long-time diplomatic norms and partnerships, however, things have changed with the Trump Administration. Flying directly from a highly contentious NATO summit, President Trump met with embattled British Prime Minister May on July 12-13, before meeting with Queen Elizabeth. The first official visit to the U.K. by President Trump was always expected to be a noisy affair, with large street protests. It was unexpected, though, that Trump’s own statements and actions would be the most dramatic part of his visit.

A recorded on-the-record interview with the British newspaper The Sunwas released while President Trump was still having dinner with Prime Minister May. In the interview—which caused an immediate disruptive effect—the U.S. President criticized Prime Minister May’s plan for‘Brexit, saying she ignored his suggestion on how to handle leaving the E.U.; that her handling of the issue might derail any U.K./U.S. bilateral trade deal; and that her main rival, Boris Johnson, would ‘make a great prime minister.’ During a wide-ranging press conference with Prime Minster May, President Trump said he apologized to the Prime Minister about the article—specifically the editing of the interview—and had praised Boris Johnson because Johnson had always ‘been very nice to me. He's been saying very good things about me as president.’

As with all of his meetings with heads of states, President Trump framed the relationship between the U.S. and its closest ally entirely in terms of his personal relationship with the Prime Minister. He said that in the 1.5 days of meetings, he had formed an amazing relationship with May, dramatically changing his tone and rhetoric from the Sun interview—as well as many previous statements that had cast doubt on May’s support for immigration and attempts to negotiate a ‘soft Brexit.’ President Trump told Prime Minister May at the press conference that ‘whatever you're gonna do is OK with us, just make sure we can trade with you, that's all that matters.’

The unprofessional, sweeping statements about ‘amazing friendships’ made by the U.S. President leaves U.S. relations with long-standing partners and allies vulnerable to unpredictable shifts. This is the opposite of traditional, strategically-focused statecraft. U.S. policy towards Russia, for example, which every U.S. government agency and department views as America’s greatest geopolitical rival, is, in the repeated public statements of the president, actually dependent upon whether the two leaders can become ‘friends.’ Maintaining an effective rapport and some level of trust is important for negotiating policies with countries working against U.S. national interests. However, the notion that the appropriate barometer of analysis for policy direction is friendship—as opposed to dealing with facts, including Russia’s continued illegal annexation of Crimea, its invasion of eastern Ukraine, its support for the Assad regimeand its blatant and continued active measures against Western democracies and elections—is unprecedented.


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