In Britain for his first visit since becoming the top U.S. diplomat, Pompeo offered a relentless defense of U.S.-British relations, telling reporters that “the special relationship is the beating heart of the free world.” Pompeo even offered a rare positive spin on the economic effects of Brexit in a speech at the Center for Policy Studies.
“President Trump is eager for a new free-trade agreement that will take our Number 1 trade relationship to unlimited new heights,” he said.
But for all these optimistic words, Pompeo’s time in London was ultimately a reminder that at the moment, this transatlantic partnership is not as rosy as Meghan and Harry’s.
Pompeo repeatedly used British history to chide the government for not following Trump administration policy. Asked at a news conference about the Iran nuclear deal, from which President Trump withdrew the United States one year ago — despite protests from the British government — the secretary of state invoked Winston Churchill’s battle against Nazi Germany.
“So not far from here are the Churchill War Rooms, where a leader of this great country stared evil in the face and recognized the threat that evil presented to the entire world,” Pompeo said. “We’re working together to push back against that threat.”
Hours later, he pondered how the late British Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher would have handled a rising China, after media reports about Britain’s willingness to work with the Chinese telecom giant Huawei.
“Would the Iron Lady be silent when China violates the sovereignty of nations through corruption or coercion?” he said. “I know it’s a sensitive topic, but we have to talk about sensitive things, as friends.”
Unfortunately for Pompeo, not all Britons have his rosy view of Westminster’s relationship with Washington. Pompeo may hark back to the days of Churchill and Thatcher, but many Britons still have bitter feelings about more recent history — in particular, the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that Britain supported.
Now, the Trump administration’s recent combative tone with Iran has people worried again. The United States issued new sanctions against Iran on Wednesday after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani threatened to start enriching more uranium.
The United States deployed an aircraft carrier and bomber group to the Persian Gulf this week in what it said was a response to an Iranian plan to attack U.S. military personnel in the region. The Times of London’s Richard Spencer wrote Wednesday that the Trump administration’s Iran strategy represented “undoubtedly, the single most dangerous near-term threat to world peace.”
Pompeo was questioned about conflict in the Middle East during his trip. During a meeting with faith leaders Wednesday morning, he was pushed by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the leader of the Church of England, on how foreign military intervention helped create conditions that led to the declining Christian population in Iraq. “Foreign interventions can often have very serious long-term consequences,” Welby said.
This skepticism of American foreign policy extends beyond Middle Eastern matters. Pompeo found himself faced with doubts concerning the U.S. role in backing Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó in a bid to topple Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has said that his Labour Party opposes “outside interference in Venezuela, whether from the U.S. or anywhere else."
When a journalist asked Pompeo what he made of Corbyn’s apparent support of Maduro, Pompeo said in unusually undiplomatic language that it was “disgusting” to see leaders back the “murderous dictator.”
Few thought that Pompeo’s insult would harm Corbyn’s reputation. In fact, it might aid it. “A top Trump official calling Corbyn ‘disgusting’ is a gift to Corbyn, regardless of where you stand on Venezuela,” tweeted British journalist Mehdi Hasan.
Even on Brexit, a policy that Trump openly supports, U.S. trade policy is a real worry for London. A Guardian editorial that coincided with Pompeo’s visit noted that Trump’s trade deal with China, if it comes to pass, would bypass the World Trade Organization — the very institution on which Brexit hard-liners hope to fall back in the event of a “no-deal” Brexit.
So if British interests are so out of line with the United States’s, why is Trump heading to London in June for a state visit? Writing in the New Statesman last month, Stephen Bush noted that Trump’s unpopularity among Britons “weakens Brexit just by association.”
Part of the problem is that, beleaguered by Brexit, Britain has left many other foreign policy problems — including the fraught special relationship with Trump — on autopilot, yielding directionless and contradictory policies.
“On Iran, Britain remains caught in its own corridor of uncertainty between the contrasting responses of its European and American allies, while on Huawei it is trapped between its increasing engagement with China and the age-old temptation of refighting the cold war,” the Guardian’s Martin Kettle wrote Wednesday.
There had been some hope that baby Archie, entitled to a U.S. passport through his American mother, might herald a new era in Anglo-American relations. “This was good news on both sides of the Atlantic,” Pompeo said.
But if there is a baby who sums up the current state of the special relationship, it isn’t Archie. It is the big, fat, orange, diaper-wearing blimp that is expected to rise, once again, to greet Trump as he arrives in London on June 3.
Right now, like the blimp, the special relationship is at risk of floating away, adrift.
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