Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but is useless, as the old saying goes. Callum Parke explains the impact that Donald Trump’s presidency had on the historic relationship between the two nations in a an era marked by division, populism and – well, Twitter.
Donald Trump’s presidency could be conservatively described as a whirlwind, with Hurricane Donald seemingly sweeping across most of the world at some point during his four years in the White House.
Where Hurricane Donald has made landfall, there has been a noticeable change in diplomatic relations with the United States. The most visible damage has been felt in countries that had previously enjoyed close relations with the US, not least in the United Kingdom.
The Anglo-American relationship has on the whole been extremely close and has been a mainstay of international relations since the Second World War.
That is not to say that it has all been plain sailing. Various prime ministers and presidents have embraced and quarrelled in equal measure.
Like all relationships, the UK-US friendship has seen its strength fluctuate throughout recent decades but has endured. As Boris Johnson said last week to the Associated Press:
“The United States is our closest and most important ally, and that has been the case president after president, prime minister after prime minister – it won’t change.”
But despite all of the relationship’s many peaks and troughs, Trump’s presidency has been a distinctly unpleasant chapter.
But to the UK, President-elect Joe Biden represents an altogether different leader, whom Johnson’s administration will appreciate the pressing need to work with.
However, both will see the next four years as a chance to repair the damage caused to the Special Relationship by Trump’s presidency.
As well as falling on opposing sides of multiple foreign policy debates, British politicians and the wider public have been disenchanted by Trump’s impulsive use of Twitter and populist political platform.
Combined, the past four years of Trump have left the relationship needing to be made special again.
Foreign Policy: From co-operation to defiance
Trump’s presidency was, in foreign policy terms, strewn with Anglo-American disagreement, contention and dispute over issues on which the two had previously closely cooperated.
US foreign policy under the now-74-year-old shifted drastically, with Obama’s reliance on soft power and pursuit of an international liberal order replaced with an inward-focused doctrine of America First. This also dictated the end of America’s forward-leaning military stance, with troops withdrawn from Syria and Iraq.
The Obama-era ideological platform had been shared with the UK, centring on multilateral initiatives. Under Trump, this began to split. The US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and Iran Nuclear Deal both drew heavy criticism, the UK’s support for both remaining steadfast. This was just two examples of open defiance which would have been near-impossible to imagine prior to Trump’s election.
Indeed, Johnson has already dished out a subtle backhander to the outgoing president, adding:
“I think now with President Biden in the White House in Washington we have the real prospect of American global leadership in tackling climate change.”
Trump’s criticism of liberal institutions such as NATO and the UN also raised eyebrows in Westminster. But the UK again remained defiant. Under both Johnson and Theresa May the country maintained a hard line with Putin’s Russia, amidst Trump’s repeated overtures. It also voted in favour of a UN resolution declaring null and void the move of the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
A poll in 2019 found that only 28 per cent of Britons trusted Trump to make the right move when it came to foreign policy. Whilst that alone is startling, the fact that the figure was 80% during the Obama administration is more so.
Trump’s brazen departure from established foreign policy doctrine, therefore, had an unmistakeably negative impact on the strength of the UK-US relationship, with instances of open British disagreement seen more frequently than ever before in recent memory. But every cloud has a silver lining, and Biden’s internationalist and pragmatic approach to international relations will comfort the Prime Minister, the Foreign Office and the public.
Trump’s worldview was – and remains – simple. You are with us, or against us. The black and white world, although perhaps tinted with orange, left no grey areas.
The President promoted – and was elected partly on the back of – a populist ideology. His Manichean, dualistic view of the world fuelled his beliefs that the Washington swamp needed draining, as he so frequently claimed when he ran for election in 2016. His self-entitled position as defender of the oppressed people against an unknown elite conspiracy made him extremely popular amongst those who had been disillusioned by mainstream politics.
Evidence of this was seen throughout his time as both a candidate and Commander-in-Chief. He aggressively attacked the “fake news” spouted by the mainstream media, suggested climate change was a conspiracy created by the Chinese, and demonised those who opposed him including, “Crooked Hillary [Clinton]” and “Sleepy Joe [Biden].”
But such an ideology was not limited solely to domestic politics. Save the Prime Minister, Trump’s closest ally in the UK was former UKIP leader – and arguably, fellow populist – Nigel Farage. In return for Farage’s appearances at Trump rallies, the president vocally backed Brexit as “a great thing” and even claimed on Twitter, “Many people would want to see [Farage] represent Great Britain as their Ambassador to the United States. He would do a great job!”
Downing Street politely rejected the idea, but Theresa May and her government did well to hide their displeasure. The two leaders had not even met at that point.
The president’s failure from the outset to respect diplomatic norms and established behavioural conventions between the two states immediately soured the relationship. Indeed, Adam Quinn of the London School of Economics described Trump as, “someone who will quite cheerfully give encouragement, at [the UK government’s] expense, to the competing forces on their right if and when circumstances present.”
Before he had even set foot in office, Trump’s ideology and worldview had spoken for him, setting a concerning precedent for who fitted into his “us” and “them” camps. This mindset, which in the form of Farage had been near-rejected in Britain, cast doubt over the relationship’s strength for the next four years.
Trump revolutionised the way Twitter was used as a political mouthpiece. Above all else, @realDonaldTrump will be the business mogul’s lasting legacy.
But whilst this worked wonders with his supporters and intrigued neutral observers, it ostracised those who were less keen on Trump’s political firebrand. For the average Briton, used to the more measured approach of Obama (and then-Vice-President Biden), Trump’s inflammatory use of social media was a mixture of fascinating, shocking and insulting.
After victory in 2016, Trump stayed true to the methods that had got him to the White House. As a businessman and TV celebrity, his tweets mattered little. Following his election, Trump’s status was altered irreversibly. But the substance of his tweets – filled with demonisation, unsubstantiated statements and insult-laden self-promotion – remained constant.
This too drove a wedge between Trump’s America and the UK.
Multiple incidents evidence this. Trump retweeted videos from the now-banned alt-right group, Britain First, in 2017. He did not shy from using the platform to criticise the UK’s Brexit negotiation strategy, despite publicly backing the referendum result. He also had a running feud with Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, tweeting that Khan was, “a stone-cold loser”, “terrible” and “incompetent.”
Britons were quick to show their displeasure at Trump’s online actions, beyond the Baby Trump blimp. This did not exclude high-ranking politicians. May, Johnson and several members of both Houses of Parliament publicly shared their dismay at the president’s online vitriol.
By contradicting every known norm about how leaders should act and communicate, Trump tore the rulebook apart, and distanced himself from those who had previously been steadfast American allies.
In words, actions, and mindset, Trump’s negative impact on the Anglo-American relationship has been clear.
The next four years – in the eyes of both Biden and Johnson – will be a clean-up job, but all is not lost. Despite Trump’s best efforts, the US remains a critical ally for this country. In a post-Covid and post-Brexit world, America could be key to future economic success. For the US, the UK will be a useful partner in driving America’s new foreign policy goals.
Whilst it remains to be see how the attempts to repair the damage and carve a new relationship will play out, both leaders appear keen to get to work. The needs of both countries outweigh the challenges posed. As Johnson was keen to stress, “there is far more that unities us than divides us.”
Provided both sides can see that, it is likely that the relationship can regain its special status, despite the damage sustained during the Trump presidency.
By Callum Parke
Featured image: Gage Skidmore on Flickr