When the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, US President Barack Obama famously declared German Chancellor Angela Merkel to be his “closest international partner.” In a volte-face completely removed from the “special relationship” — the description made famous by Sir Winston Churchill in a 1946 address — Obama’s statement seemed to indicate a waning of the bonds between the two allies. As the embattled British Prime Minister Theresa May hosts current President Donald Trump, it is critical she gets the bilateral relationship back on track. Two nations that share so much are predisposed to be great allies.
On the back of a NATO summit that highlighted the need for a unified front in the face of existential threats, the president’s visit comes at an important time. The UK remains the US’ foremost military ally and rumors of the White House first seeking responses from Berlin and Paris in light of major international crises is clearly not a preference for the current US administration.
At this week’s NATO summit, Trump criticized Germany’s relationship with Russia, accusing it of undermining the alliance. In highlighting the US’ trade deficit with Germany and Washington shouldering more than 70 percent of NATO’s expenditure, the UK must position itself as a committed and reliable ally. It was the UK, after all, that most recently agreed to almost double the number of its troops in Afghanistan after Trump’s request for NATO reinforcements. To many, the single most worrying scenario for Western security is the growing relationship between Germany and Russia; a reality that the UK is best placed to support the US in facing.
In light of the high-profile resignations from the UK government this week, May needs a successful visit to build confidence in her leadership and to secure the special relationship going forward. Following a report that London would maintain a “combined customs area,” the Brexit process has gone off track. The prime minister must now fend off some serious challenges to her leadership whilst averting controversy during a contentious presidential visit. Trump’s visit is likely to be met with protests — a troublesome reality that will cause No. 10 difficulty in assuring the Americans of a strong and stable government. The president has stated Brexit is a “fantastic thing for the United Kingdom” and, with the future of the EU now more in question than during Obama’s term, May must reassure Trump over British influence on continental and international politics.
One of Trump’s first acts as president was restoring a bust of Churchill to the Oval Office. Having been removed by Obama, the gesture was indicative of the new president’s affinity for America’s greatest ally. However, the ties that bind the two countries far surpass the sentimental: The US is the largest investor in the UK, with American firms having pumped nearly $600 billion into the British market. This figure is almost a quarter of total US investment in Europe. The UK is also the largest foreign investor in the US, with British spending almost $76 billion ahead of the next largest investor (Japan), and dwarfing that of India and China. This amounts to some 15 percent of the total foreign direct investment into the US and contributes to the 1.1 million Americans who work for British companies. With such bilateral trade supporting millions more jobs indirectly, it is these significant economic ties that will underwrite the political relationship going forward, binding the two powers.
The countries are culturally brought together by, among many things, their common language. According to David DesRoches, Associate Professor at the National Defense University, the links are strong: “Two of the nine members of the Supreme Court attended graduate school in the UK as Marshall Scholars; and the green berets worn by elite US military commandos are taken from the Royal Marines.” Interestingly, the ties run even deeper. According to a recent study, all but one of the 45 US presidents have British ancestry; the incumbent having Scottish roots. The UK may rely on such bonds as leverage in its relationship with the US, as these relations do enhance its role in the context of American policy-makers, while transcending political differences.
May is no doubt in a difficult position, but the policy of Obama was very much an exception, not the rule. The two countries have shared a great deal of success concerning security, international peace, trade, education, law enforcement and intelligence that will no doubt continue going forward. The prime minister must seize this opportunity to strengthen the alliance and overcome the real challenges facing her government, but also reassure Trump of the need to work together to face the challenges to Western security.
- Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).