Earlier this year, President Obama’s advisor on National Security confirmed that former Prime Minister David Cameron prompted Obama to remark that the UK would be “back of the queue” in any post Brexit deal.
This was designed to persuade the British people that our number one ally would not be delivering any special treatment if we made the fateful decision of leaving the EU.
Most observers, however, dismissed such remarks as “project fear” knowing full well that the President’s choice of the word “queue”, rather than the typically American usage of “line”, was evidence that Cameron had influence in scripting Mr Obama's remarks.
Fast forward to a new occupant of the White House who upon taking office pledged a “powerful pact” with the UK that would happen “very very quickly.” Unfortunately, President Trump seems to have gotten ahead of himself as industrial leaders in the US subsequently said that no deal is possible until they know what the final terms of the UK-EU deal are.
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One could argue the merits of that argument but it is nevertheless disappointing to many UK officials who believed that the UK-US trade deal will be the easiest piece in the entire post-Brexit jigsaw due to our “Special Relationship” with the US.
Having lived in both the US and UK and interacted with policy officials on both sides of the Atlantic my own observation is that the Special Relationship is in fact a one directional affair.
The US simply does not have the affection for the British that many of our politicians would like to believe. We do have a close relationship, particularly when it comes to military and security matters, but to say there is anything special out with mutual interests is a mistake.
So why this constant, sometimes embarrassing, fawning Special Relationship? A term which seems alien to the ears of our friends across the pond?
In the long term, the UK needs to have a realist policy calculated based directly on national strategic interest without being subservient to the USDr. Azeem Ibrahim
‘Top Table Syndrome’
The reality is that the UK has never really recovered from the loss of its Empire and still suffers from ‘Top Table Syndrome’. It cannot imagine a world where it does not retain global reach and influence. In fact, the cornerstone of UK security policy is to be closely connected to and supporting of the policies pursued by our American cousins.
This has resulted in an enthusiasm to get deeply involved in global conflicts without thinking too hard about how much it might cost, and whether it is a price we really want to pay.
And the lack of preparation to meet those costs has resulted in the under-resourcing we have seen over the past few years, which has resulted in the scandalous shortages of tanks, helicopters, night goggles and rifles when our forces needed them most.
The US on the other hand, as the world’s last remaining superpower, will naturally have a number of distinctive bilateral relations.
Such as with China – the largest holder of US debt; or Saudi Arabia – world’s largest energy provider; or Mexico – the biggest source of cheap labour to the US. It was therefore little surprise that the first foreign trip for US President Trump made was to Saudi Arabia and not UK or even anywhere in Europe.
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In the long term, the UK needs to have a realist policy which is calculated based directly on the national strategic interest without being subservient to the US.
The Bush/Blair expedition in Iraq and Afghanistan is imbedded in the national psyche and we continue to suffer financially, morally and physically due to the UK's inability to recognize this phantom special relation.
So does the special relationship still retain sufficient currency to deliver a “powerful pact?” It seems unlikely. The current administration is consumed with major trade fights with China, Canada and Mexico.
And with the Mueller investigation finale just around the corner, one can expect it to consume any remaining bandwidth until the mid terms.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.