The British have been obsessed with their own decline since the end of the Second World War. 1945 may have marked the beginning of the end of the British Empire, but those ‘halcyon days’ of Imperial Britain are still viewed with a rose-tinted nostalgia by many. The post-war reality – that the United States, not the United Kingdom, was the leader of the Western world – was made humiliatingly clear in the Suez Crisis in 1956. Yet many British politicians still point to the ‘special relationship’ as a sign of the UK’s enduring influence on the world stage. Churchill, who first coined the term in his 1946 speech in Missouri, foresaw the special relationship as a ‘fraternal association’; Britain and America cooperating as brothers to ensure ‘that the highroads of the future will be clear’.
That vision is still clung to today: if the United States is the brawn, we are the brain, the wise and respected advisor whispering in the ear of our American cousin. But there has always been a nagging doubt among the British establishment that the special relationship is nowhere near as equitable as that. Beyond Suez, it was the United States which pushed for the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the United Kingdom which faithfully followed suit. Perhaps the British were secretly a little hurt when Ayatollah Khamenei, Supreme Leader of Iran, referred to us as ‘Little Satan’, a pathetic imp at the beck and call of the ‘Great Satan’ America. Brexit has done nothing to alleviate the paranoia as to our own increasing irrelevance. The United Kingdom was at least useful as a window into Europe for the Americans, a friend who could stand up for our common interests, but leaving the European Union undercuts that role.
On Tuesday evening, the Cambridge Union hosted a debate on the issue of the special relationship, with a line-up including Sir Vince Cable, Emily Thornberry and Bernard Cazeneuve. Notably, the only American speaker, former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, spoke forcefully of the United States’ enduring commitment to the special relationship. Johnson is a charismatic speaker with a feel for his audience. He regaled the crowd with the anecdote of his service as ‘designated survivor’ during the inauguration of Donald Trump, (the senior administration official kept away from the rest of the executive, so that if calamity befalls the leaders of America, he can assume the Presidency and ensure continuity of government). This fact, Johnson wryly remarked, made him the first cabinet minister of Donald Trump, and, he is quick to add, the first to resign from such a post.
In his speech to the Union, and in his comments to The Cambridge Globalist, Johnson was reassuringly optimistic. As various speakers in the debate pointed out, Donald Trump’s isolationism and dismissive attitude towards America’s European allies is hardly helpful to relations with the United Kingdom. The ‘America First’ rhetoric, which has already put the United States at loggerheads with NATO, has the potential to undermine other long-standing foreign policy institutions such as the special relationship. Particularly worrying is the prospect that Trump’s jingoistic ideology is not an aberration, but now firmly ingrained in right-wing American politics. In many ways the GOP appears to be the party of Trump; prominent Republican critics of the President such as Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker have opted to retire rather than face possible defeat in a party primary at the hands of Trump’s zealous base. Donald Trump leaving office may not mark a return to business as usual – America’s relationships with her allies might be permanently weakened.
Johnson disagrees, ‘Trump’s base is taking hold of that [isolationist] message, but his base consists of somewhere between 40, 42% [of the population] given his approval ratings at any one time. I tend to believe that when he’s gone from office the American public will look for something different.’ He is frank as to the sort of politics that this rhetoric may have fuelled, citing ‘violent, white nationalism and racist hatred’ which ‘is more pronounced and more emboldened now in this particular environment.’ ‘We [saw] that in Charlottesville [where white nationalists murdered a counter-demonstrator in 2017]. I think it’s more brazen now than we’ve seen in a number of years.’ But despite the rise of this far-right extremism, Johnson anticipates a return to relative normality: ‘we have a pendulum effect in American politics where every four to eight years the voters want something very different to what they had before. So, after Bush we had Obama, after Obama we have Trump – that’s radical change.’ He predicts that after Trump the Republican Party will likely move back to a more mainstream foreign policy, which would surely have positive repercussions for the special relationship.
The results of the midterm elections, which took place the night Johnson spoke at the Union, seem to offer his position some support. The Democrats retook the majority in the House of Representatives in a sharp rebuke of the Trump administration, gaining roughly 35 seats. The swing away from the GOP was especially pronounced in white, affluent, educated suburbs, which have traditionally been a key component of the Republican electorate. Strength in these areas has propelled Democratic victories in Arizona, the seat which Jeff Flake declined to contest, and in the South Carolina district in which Republican Mark Sanford lost his primary to an opponent less critical of Trump. The defection of the suburbs to the Democrats spells potential electoral catastrophe for the Republicans – moving back to a more standard conservatism may be necessary if the GOP is to avoid further losses.
Beyond the electoral mathematics, Johnson maintains that there is simply a strong incentive to preserve such historically productive relations with Britain as are embodied in the special relationship. He noted the benefits America and the UK have both reaped from cooperation from one another, arguing that the ‘personal bond’ between Churchill and Roosevelt ‘led us to victory in World War Two’, and, that more recently Thatcher and George H. W. Bush ‘together accomplished a lot of really great things’. Our shared history has fostered important links, with the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing arrangement remaining the most profound collaboration between secret services ever. There are also clearly strong cultural ties between the US and UK, which Johnson picked up on, referring to the peculiarly American obsession with the British aristocracy. The marriage of Meghan Markle to Prince Harry, he half-joked, will do more to strengthen the special relationship between the United Kingdom and America, than Brexit or Trump could ever do to undermine it.