Adjusting the Special Relationship After Brexit

The U.K. and U.S. will remain close. Just a little less so.


Photographer: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

When Theresa May takes over as U.K. prime minister on Wednesday, her first job will be to steer the British economy past the shock of Brexit. But almost as important is the largest rewiring of British foreign policy since World War II -- including its relationship with its closest ally and former colony.

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May becomes the 12th head of government since Winston Churchill left office in 1955. Britain's relationship with the U.S. has been steady and close over those years, even when policies and personalities diverged (think of Harold Wilson's refusal to send troops to Vietnam to support President Lyndon Johnson).

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Officially, the relationship is unchanged. Following the U.K.'s vote on June 23 to leave the European Union, House Speaker Paul Ryan noted: “Our friends in the United Kingdom are our indispensable ally, and this is a very special relationship, and that relationship is going to continue no matter what. Period, end of story.”

The reality is more awkward. Despite the hope of some Brexiters that severed cross-Channel bonds will lead to strengthened trans-Atlantic ones, May will find the U.K. and U.S. divided by more than a common language. The most immediate reminder of that was last week's release of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war.

In a now-famous letter to George W. Bush written in July 2002, Tony Blair wrote, "I will be with you, whatever." That would strike most Americans as a natural affirmation of friendship from a close ally following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 on New York and Washington.

To Britons, though, it was seen as a blank check, an unforgivable betrayal of the country's interests. Only 8 percent of his countrymen think Blair did nothing wrong in Iraq; 53 percent say they can never forgive him. It's hard to imagine a British prime minister ever uttering words like that again. While the Chilcot report was taken by many here as a guilty verdict on Tony Blair's leadership and decision to go to war in Iraq, it was actually much broader than that. It was an indictment of the entire premise of Britain's postwar foreign policy that has been grounded on protecting interests by projecting influence.

Speaking in a recent podcast, Glen Rangwala, a lecturer at Cambridge and expert on the Middle East, commented that Iraq reflected "a collective conceit on the part of politicians in the U.K., not just Mr. Blair but others too, that by having a role, by staying closely involved, by offering support at various stages, British influence would be increased." Chilcot asks, to what end?

Some would argue -- Tony Blair among them -- that personal relationships were essential to influence and influence yielded concessions that Britain wanted. In 2002, the U.S. sought a coalition and backing for U.N. Resolution 1441 on the urging of Downing Street. That gave Iraq another chance to comply with arms inspections and delayed the start of war. Chilcot acknowledges that.

But the U.S. course to war was set; the route could be altered but the destination would not be. As former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told the Munich security conference in February 2002, "The mission must determine the coalition; the coalition must not determine the mission."

The charge that foreign policy in Britain has lost its sense of purpose is one that many Brexiters agreed with. A large share of the British public just rejected a seat at the table in Europe. A sizable segment of this vote cares little about influence and simply wants the freedom to pursue anti-immigrant, pro-welfare policies that depend little on relationship skills or the backdoor channels that the mandarins of Britain's foreign and intelligence services deploy so skillfully. This camp won't cheer May's missives to Washington; they want her focused at home.

Others in the Brexit camp, however, hoped that by leaving Europe, Britain would tie itself more closely to the U.S. They will want to show that leaving Europe has made Britain more relevant in the world. That idea has periodically cropped up over the years and never fails to get an eye-roll from U.S. officials.

When President Barack Obama warned before the referendum that Britain would have to go to the “back of the queue” for trade deals, he was acknowledging the reality that Britain's value to the U.S. derived in part from its seat at the bigger EU table. As Raymond Seitz, U.S. ambassador to the U.K. from 1991 to 1994, wrote in his memoirs back in 1998:

Some hold up the American connection – a revivified ‘special relationship’ – as a viable alternative to full-blooded Europeanness. But this is a flimsy proposition, unlikely to gain much traction except with the graspers of straws. When push comes to shove, America has a greater interest in European unity than in British sovereignty.

May will have a hard time pleasing both visions of Britain's future in the world, and she will find the U.S. distracted by its own issues. That isn't to say that the relationship that May and her successors forge will no longer be, in that hackneyed phrase, special. It hardly bears repeating that the two countries have a history, share values and a common perception of threats. Or that there are economic interests at stake: Over a fifth of the foreign assets of American companies are in the U.K., while British corporations created over a million jobs in the U.S., its largest export destination.

The City of London will hold on to much of its role as a financial center after Brexit. American banks will be there. Decades-long institutional links, particularly within British and American intelligence and military communities, will prove useful. Like an old couple that has parted ways but remain friends, their history together will be respected.

Who knows, a May-Clinton friendship could even look a little like other great partnerships in the Anglo-American pantheon beginning with Churchill-Roosevelt. At least on the surface. Beneath, it is likely to feature more of that famous British reserve than in Blair's day.

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

    To contact the author of this story:
    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

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