Every four years, the world watches as Americans decide who will occupy the most powerful office on Earth. Nowhere is this truer than in the United Kingdom, a country that so often talks of its “special relationship” with the United States, a reference to the term coined by Winston Churchill in 1946.
And never has this been truer than in 2020. In the coming years, the UK will dramatically reshape its position in the world, as the Brexit transition period expires on December 31 and the country severs its final ties with the European Union.
It stands to reason that the UK would turn to its most important single ally for support during this period; the presidential term of whoever wins on November 3 expires at roughly the same time Britons are expected to next go to the polls in 2024.
This means that either Donald Trump or Joe Biden will play a big part in influencing the UK’s Brexit policy before the end of the year. They will likely do the same for all British foreign policy after their inauguration.
When Churchill used the words “special relationship” he did so on American soil alongside his friend, President Harry Truman. World War II ended the previous year, but Europe was still extremely fragile. An aggressive Soviet Russia was making clear its intentions to increase control in Central and Eastern Europe, while promoting alternative political ideologies in the Far East. And while the Nazis had been defeated, many fascist groups and parties remained powerful across the continent.
The solution? “Neither the sure prevention of war, nor the continuous rise of world organization will be gained without what I have called the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples. This means a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States,” said Churchill. Such an alliance involved, he explained, the “continuance of the intimate relationship between our military advisers, leading to common study of potential dangers,” as well as “the interchange of officers and cadets at technical colleges.”
Sure enough, the two nations have since cooperated on a wide range of security, economic, cultural and diplomatic matters. During the Cold War, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan stood shoulder to shoulder in opposition of the Soviet Union, celebrating free-market capitalism and Western democracy. Perhaps the strongest sign of their partnership was that Thatcher was the only foreign leader to speak at Reagan’s funeral in 2004.
After the September 2001 attacks, Tony Blair was by far the staunchest international supporter of President George W. Bush and one of the few European leaders to follow America into Iraq.
Beyond political leaders, the two countries together formed the foundations of NATO and the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network, institutions that have stood the test of time, whoever happens to be in charge of either government.
“There’s no doubt Blair and Bush had a partnership that was unrivaled during the Iraq war. That same is true for Thatcher and Reagan during the Cold War,” says Malcom Rifkind, a former British foreign secretary. And even though “it doesn’t happen with every prime minister and every president,” Rifkind acknowledges, “the intimate institutional relationship on security and a broad range of international issues has stuck.”
However, the question many British politicians are wondering is, outside of security, how much can they rely on the US to protect the UK’s interests in a post-Brexit world? In other words, how special is the relationship really?
Of particular interest is the current row over Johnson’s plan to override part of the Brexit deal he signed with the European Union, called the Northern Ireland Protocol. Critics say Johnson’s plan risks a hard border on the island of Ireland — between Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state — and breaks the 1998 Good Friday Agreement brokered by then-US President Bill Clinton. That deal brought an end to decades of sectarian violence and found a way for both Unionists and Republicans to work together in governing Northern Ireland.
Ministers of his own government have admitted it would break international law. And unfortunately for Johnson, the Irish-American lobby carries a lot of sway in Washington DC.
“I don’t think the British public understands the reservoir of public support for Ireland in America. Growing up in America, I went to plenty of St. Patrick’s Day parades, but nothing for St George’s Day,” says Thomas Scotto, Professor of Political Science at the University of Glasgow. “Britain certainly has a kinship with the US, but it remains unforeseen what happens if the US is forced to choose between Ireland and Britain.”
We might find out soon. In recent weeks, Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, among others, have reminded the UK that breaking the Good Friday Agreement would likely mean no trade deal with the US.
“While Ireland has been good at leveraging its diplomatic power, this recent public backing of the Good Friday Agreement has mostly been driven by American politicians,” says Jennifer Cassidy, an Irish academic and diplomatic scholar at Oxford University. “I would certainly say it gives the Irish confidence that should a hard border come into place, the world’s biggest power will be a true ally at what will be a horrible time.”
The issue of who America would back extends beyond the Irish Question and is arguably the biggest head scratcher for Johnson as he plots Britain’s future. And perhaps the biggest unknown is exactly what a re-elected Trump would do.
We know that the President supports Brexit and dislikes the European Union. We also know that he likes to give the impression that he and Johnson have a close relationship, repeatedly calling him his friend. In a long list of comparisons that are made of the pair, fairly or unfairly, they are the only two world leaders to have been hospitalized by coronavirus.
If he wins re-election in November, it is possible that Trump would see a strategic advantage in closer relations with the UK in a way that would undermine the EU. This, in turn, could lead to a beneficial economic relationship for the UK.
However much of a boon this could be for Johnson, it carries risk. “Trump is not a popular figure outside the US. In our latest polling 61% of Brits thought Trump has been a terrible president. Just about 8% said he has been good or great,” says Chris Curtis, Political Research Manager at pollster YouGov.
And even if Johnson took the view that the British public could overlook Trump’s toxicity if he propped up the country post-Brexit, there is scant evidence that this would win over voters. “Brits already think we have a very close relationship with America and only 21% want to see it get closer,” says Curtis. “If given a choice, our research shows Brits would prefer to have a closer relationship with Europe.”
Johnson might already know this. Rifkind believes that if Trump were to make overtures to Britain, “Johnson is at least smart enough to know that being chums with Trump is not something that helps him with the British public.” And that’s a public that Johnson, or his Conservative successor, will have to face in 2024.
In fairness to Johnson, he has not shown much appetite for deferring to Trump. He has on more than one occasion sided with his European allies Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron on several international issues, including Iran. He also declined to meet with Trump during the 2019 Conservative leadership contest, after his team decided it would do more damage than good.
Less of a mystery is what position Biden would take on both Northern Ireland and Brexit as a whole. We know that he opposes the UK breaching the Northern Ireland Protocol and we know that a President Biden would seek a return to multilateralism.
If Johnson wanted to join Biden in restoring this sort of order to the world, it would not be unpopular with large parts of the British public. “Research shows that the British public is more supportive of Democratic US presidents,” says Scotto. “There is a small percentage of hard Brexiteers that support Trump and his nationalist agenda and they may have some sway within the Conservative Party, but overall it is a marginal group.”
Unfortunately for Johnson, some of those voices are supporters of his Conservative Party and people who voted for him in December, when he ran an election campaign on a promise to “Get Brexit Done.” And however marginal their views might be among the public at large, the British political system makes it very hard for a leader to govern without the broad and full support of their own party.
Now, the Prime Minister has, somewhat inexplicably, decided to reopen the Brexit debate, with his supporters pressing for a tougher stance.
Which brings us to a paradox. A hard Brexit gives the UK the most freedom to deal with global partners, yet the hardest of Brexits potentially nixes the UK’s ability to deal with its most important partner of all, at least in the case of a Biden presidency.
Worse for Johnson, some believe that even in the case of a Trump victory, the special relationship might not really be special enough for Trump to prop him up.
“I never grew up thinking there was a special relationship, neither did my parents. All we knew about the UK was the Queen and an awful comedian called Benny Hill,” says Scott Lucas, Professor of American Studies at the University of Birmingham. “Sure, you have the security relationship and the relationship between institutions. But it’s not a relationship of equals. The US of course wants a good relationship with the UK, but it also wants one with Japan, Germany or Israel. Britain is not necessarily the first port of call with the US, let alone the American public.”
As was pointed out many times during the presidency of Barack Obama, if the US wants a line into what’s happening in Europe, it can very easily pick up the phone and call Germany, just as Trump managed to find common ground with French leader Emmanuel Macron early in his presidency.
Johnson was already facing a difficult autumn. Trade talks with Brussels are reaching their hottest point, just as the coronavirus is resurging. He is facing some minor but not insignificant rebellions within his party over his handling of both.
As the year draws to its end, Johnson would benefit from the support of his big brother across the pond. However, he cannot ask for that support until the votes are in — doing so could rock the boat with either of these radically different prospects. Which leaves the Prime Minister in a very uncomfortable holding pattern as he prepares for some of the hardest weeks he’s faced in an already hellish year.