Joe Biden's transition tests the US-UK'Special Relationship'

Presidential transitions, even when they are less fraught than this one, prompt more apprehension among America’s allies than among its enemies. This is especially true of the British.

The British government is exerting itself to show the incoming administration that the UK remains a useful ally. Last month, Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed to a remarkably generous supplementary funding deal for Britain’s armed forces, worth $22 billion over four years. Clearly, he hopes the new US commander in chief will regard this as a commitment to maintain the country’s military capability, always a cornerstone of transatlantic relations.

British officials burn midnight oil to divine the likely course of the Biden administration. A former British ambassador in Washington tells me: “The question is always, ‘Do we know the people who will be around the president? And will they like us?’”

Johnson and his advisers know that Biden has no predisposition to like the Prime Minister — as President did, seeing a minor clone of himself, a fellow china-breaker.

In the wake of Brexit, Britain will urgently need a new trade deal with Washington to replace the US-European Union(EU) arrangements. Yet the Biden administration will be in no hurry to negotiate, especially until it becomes plain whether the precarious 1998 Irish Good Friday peace agreement is threatened by cavalier UK conduct over border trade, as some of us fear that it will be.

When spring blossoms, Britain’s Prime Minister will almost certainly visit the new US president. Tired old phrases about a “special relationship” will be dusted off and written into British headlines. In Washington, such fantasies evoke mild amusement. Few Americans will notice that Johnson is in town.

This British government, like its predecessors, has to learn the hard lesson that US presidents spend much less time thinking about them than they do thinking about the occupant of the White House. Henry Kissinger has wittily described the follies of British prime ministers in meeting US chief executives. “Harold Wilson,” he wrote of the  British leader, “greeted President Nixon with the avuncular goodwill of the head of an ancient family that has seen better times.”

Kissinger wrote pityingly of the British yearning to claim a special relationship with the US This should be indulged, he said, because “we do not suffer in the world from such an excess of friends that we should discourage those who feel that they have a special friendship for us.” The US, he urged, should never wantonly trample on British sensitivities. It should merely pursue “special relationships” with all its allies.

Britain and the US have many values and interests in common. But successive British leaders diminish themselves when they parade delusions about their nation’s importance. Though I am not an intimate in the corridors of power, I have trafficked with six prime ministers, and urged all save Margaret Thatcher — I would not have dared — in vain to adopt realistic attitudes toward Anglo-American relations.

A few days before Theresa May entered 10 Downing Street in July 2016, by chance I was her neighbour at a dinner party. We chatted mostly about nothings, but toward the end of the evening, I said that, as a historian, I would venture to offer one fragment of advice.

When she took office, I said, she would visit Washington and receive all the courtesies in which Americans excel. However, she should never delude herself that relations between our countries involve sentiment. They are governed, instead, by the same criteria that dictate every nation’s foreign policy: perceptions of self-interest. Britain must never fall out with the US, but our leaders should forsake expectations of favours.

May said nothing in response, and I did not expect her to. But soon after Trump became president, she visited Washington and offered him a state visit to Britain — an almost unheard-of invitation at the outset of an administration.

For various reasons, the visit was put off until July 2019. When the president eventually arrived, the British pulled out the stops to entertain him, organizing a spectacular demonstration of the Special Air Service’s antiterrorist prowess, together with the Royal Family’s inimitable road show.

It all proved wasted effort. Trump has treated Britain no worse than any other nation, but also no better. Just before General James Mattis resigned as US defense secretary in February 2019, he spoke privately to a senior British officer whom he warned: “However many state visits you fix, this president does not do allies.”

None of the above — nor, indeed, what follows — is a complaint about American behavior. Again and again in the postwar era, our two nations have worked together in ways that have benefited world peace. But British governments would enjoy happier lives, and expose themselves to fewer humiliations, if they acknowledged the UK’s relatively modest place in today’s world, together with the fact that many other folks are competing for the ears and smiles of Washington.

The US and British militaries have always cooperated closely, with mutual respect. So much has been written about the quarrels between generals in World War II that it is sometimes forgotten how amazingly well relationships worked at the operational level. Intelligence is the field where Britain has the most to offer the US, a tradition unbroken since the World War II era of Bletchley Park’s legendary code-breakers. GCHQ, the British cyberwar center outside Cheltenham, is a world-class operation, which America’s National Security Agency values immensely.

Trump threatened to break the intelligence partnership unless Britain withdrew contracts from the Chinese Huawei corporation, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government complied. Its own security experts believe the US was correct on this issue.

The same was true back in November 1956, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s rage about the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt, following Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, forced a humiliating retreat. “Suez,” as the British still refer to the crisis, was a ghastly mistake, which exasperated Americans by deflecting world attention away from the savage, almost simultaneous Soviet suppression of the Budapest uprising. 

Nonetheless, Anglo-American solidarity through the decades of the Cold War was a critical factor in holding together the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance and checking Soviet adventurism. British governments suffered moments of private alarm that the US might unleash nuclear weapons, first in Korea, then during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. But the public front of the alliance remained unbroken.

John F. Kennedy was the last US president to have close friendships with leading British figures, notably the UK ambassador in Washington, David Ormsby-Gore, and the journalist Henry Brandon. There was also mutual affection between Kennedy and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. It fell to the latter to smooth his countrymen’s ruffled feathers after Secretary of State Dean Acheson asserted in 1962 that the British had lost an empire but “not yet found a role,” a remark that stung to the quick, because so true.

The transatlantic relationship survived turbulence in the mid-1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson put Wilson on the barbecue, figuratively speaking, to persuade him to send even a token troop contingent to Vietnam. Wilson’s refusal was perhaps the wisest act of his premiership, but prompted US secretary of state Dean Rusk to poke a British journalist in the chest at a Georgetown cocktail party and growl: “When the Russians invade Sussex, don’t expect us to come and help you!”

The decade of Margaret Thatcher, of course, was the sole period of the last half-century when a British leader has commanded the highest respect and attention in the US Ronald Reagan admired her prodigiously. Yet their relationship is often misunderstood. His administration repeatedly acted in ways that dismayed and even affronted her, as in 1983 when it occupied Grenada, a former British colony, without consulting London.    

Even during the UK’s war against Argentina in the Falklands a year earlier, the most serious early crisis of Thatcher’s premiership, US Secretary of State Alexander Haig and UN ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick strongly opposed endangering US interests in South America to save the moth-eaten imperial lion, as they saw Thatcher’s nation.

Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger alone, and importantly, supported Britain and ensured critical military and intelligence aid. In the last weeks of the war, Reagan enraged the Prime Minister by telephoning to urge her not to impose absolute defeat, and thus humiliation, on the Argentine military junta.

Thatcher exploded, and the transcript of their conversation delights posterity. “This is democracy and our islands,” she told him. Having lost valuable British ships and invaluable servicemen’s lives to return to the Falklands, she utterly rejected a diplomatic settlement. At one point in her harangue, Reagan held up the phone in the Oval Office so that others might hear the Prime Minister, saying, “Isn’t she marvelous?”

Several wars later, during and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Prime Minister Tony Blair expended immense political capital to support President George W. Bush all the way to Baghdad, which has cost his historic reputation dearly. Blair’s backing reflected yet another British Prime Minister fantasizing that he could buy favoUrs in Washington.

Although the British committed a division to the Iraq operation, American histories scarcely mention that participation. Moreover, Blair deluded himself that backing the invasion would enable him to secure a tougher US stance toward Israel, in pursuit of Middle East peace.   

A year after the war, a very senior official of the British Foreign Office said to me ruefully: “You know, we stuck out our necks a long way for the US over Iraq. Yet now we have a dozen outstanding bilateral issues with Washington on aircraft landing rights, F-35 technology access codes and suchlike, and we are getting absolutely no payback.”

The reality, of course, as all nations are obliged to recognize, is that the many elements of US administrations operate almost independent of each other, often little influenced by the White House. Prime Minister David Cameron sought to persuade President Barack Obama to give BP a helping hand amid the colossal cash penalties inflicted by US courts following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill (which were far in excess of those imposed on similarly negligent U.S. oil companies). He got nowhere.

Kissinger has written, in terms relevant to this day, that the British way of retaining great-power status “was to be so integral a part of American decision-making that the idea of not consulting them seemed a violation of the natural order of things.”

It remains the ambition of every British Prime Minister to make our country sufficiently useful to merit consultative status in Washington during international crises, though this becomes more difficult as the focus of US foreign policy shifts toward Asia. The British are unwilling to acknowledge that their armed forces’ lack of mass makes them ever-less-credible fighting partners. The Royal Air Force has fewer front-line planes than a US Marine air wing; the British Army and Royal Navy are likewise shrunken. The principal value of UK support of US foreign warmaking is to provide political cover.

Britain’s brilliant ambassador in Washington in the early 1990s, Robin Renwick, has written: “The UK needs to understand the perspective in which it is viewed in Washington. There is a clear recognition that, from every perspective except military, Germany is a far more important force in Europe, and will be still more so post-Brexit.”

After Biden’s inauguration, Boris Johnson’s government will face a familiar problem: As the British people display ever less confidence in their Prime Minister, there is no reason for America’s president to feel any more enthusiasm for him.    

Nonetheless, a working relationship between the two nations, rooted in common security concerns and ancestry, should remain serviceable to both. Our soldiers are unlikely again to land together on the beaches of Normandy, as they did in 1944. But it will be a sadness, indeed, should we not remain on the same side of history’s barricades through tough decades ahead.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Max Hastings is a Bloomberg columnist. He was previously a correspondent for the BBC and newspapers, editor in chief of the Daily Telegraph, and editor of the London Evening Standard. He is the author of 28 books, the most recent of which are ‘Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy’ and ‘Chastise: The Dambusters Story 1943.’

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