The British government is in turmoil. Brexit plans are in disarray. The “Brexit minister” has resigned, and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson followed him out the door. Prime Minister Theresa May hangs on by a rapidly fraying thread. And a British woman has just died after being exposed to the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok, the victim of a chemical weapon attack on British soil.
Into these rough political waters enters President Trump.
The American president arrived here in Britain on Thursday, after several false starts and rescheduling debacles doomed previous efforts. He will be greeted by a weakened government, protesters clogging the streets of major cities and a giant “Trump baby” balloon flying overhead in London. A whopping 67 percent of Britons believe he is a “poor or terrible president.”
But the fanfare and sideshows should not obscure what is truly at stake in this visit: the continuation of the “special relationship,” the transatlantic alliance between Britain and the United States that is a linchpin of NATO, international security more generally, and American interests. Trump is putting that relationship at risk by bullying Britain and treating the closest and most important U.S. ally as an adversary instead.
Several months after taking office, May traveled to Washington, where she held Trump’s hand. It was a moment rife with symbolism: May made it clear that, while her citizens overwhelmingly did not support Trump, she would try to focus on the enduring strategic value of a close partnership with the United States, no matter who is in the Oval Office. As a result, she went out of her way to be deferential to Trump, following the same route as Canada’s Justin Trudeau and France’s Emmanuel Macron.
For all of them, that flattery has accomplished nothing. Each leader still finds himself or herself in Trump’s crosshairs.
Since that cringe-worthy opening gambit of hand-holding diplomacy, Trump has shown that he doesn’t see the relationship with Britain as special at all. He attacked the mayor of London on Twitter during a terrorist attack. He thrice retweeted a British neo-fascist from the far-right group Britain First — a woman who is currently in jail for hate crimes and who had previously appeared on Radio Aryan right after a reading from Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” That incident provoked a diplomatic spat, as May rightly chastised the American president for promoting a neo-fascist to his tens of millions of social media followers; Trump inevitably punched back at her for chastising him.
And while Britain’s government this year celebrates the 70th anniversary of the establishment of its National Health Service, Trump lashed out in February on Twitter, saying it is “going broke and not working.” (Most of Trump’s tweets about Britain, it must be said, have been about Scottish wind turbines that could obscure scenic views on his golf course there, or belittling the British version of “The Apprentice.”)
Americans may have forgotten these embarrassments, but Brits have not. They were blip news stories in America, but gave the jarring and lasting impression of betrayal from a longtime ally here in Britain.
For a while, some Brits told me that they thought Trump was only a rhetorical annoyance, a Twitter bully who could safely be ignored. Trump has torn that optimistic and naive narrative apart. Trump’s tariffs are being imposed on Britain, adding real economic bite to the Twitter bluster. And the British defense establishment is horrified that Trump’s unwaveringly rosy view of Vladimir Putin persists — even after the British government concluded that the Kremlin deployed a chemical weapon on British soil, resulting in the death of a British citizen last weekend.
Any American president who valued the “special relationship” would immediately condemn Putin for that act of aggression in a show of solidarity with the United States’ most powerful ally. Instead, Trump is now heading to Helsinki to meet Putin one-on-one. (Trump initially hesitated to condemn the use of the nerve agent but ultimately signed a statement that did so. May has now asked him to address the Novichok attacks with Putin during their conversation in Helsinki.)
The “special relationship” was forged in the aftermath of the D-Day assault on the beaches of Normandy 74 years ago. Since then, thousands of British troops have fought alongside Americans in Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq. At virtually every pivotal moment in modern history, Britain has supported the United States.
The national interests of the United States and Britain are both extremely well served by a close partnership stretching across the Atlantic. Yet the current occupant of the White House only recognizes transactional, short-term self-interest, not enduring long-term national interest. Thankfully, the United States and Trump are not one and the same. Britain would be wise to keep that in mind — as the president of the United States throws his latest diplomatic tantrum with Britain while a diapered balloon baby floats high above in the London sky.