How much pressure can the US’ 'special relationship' with the UK withstand?



Since the 20th Century, successive governments and leaders of the United States and the United Kingdom have repeatedly highlighted the strength and longevity of the alliance between the two countries. However, the ‘special relationship’ of the US and UK is now increasingly being tested by the unexpected election of President Donald Trump and uncertainties surrounding the future of the UK upon completion of the Brexit process.

The election of Trump was initially welcomed by UK Prime Minister Theresa May and her government – with the election of the populist Trump being welcomed as a key to her country’s survival and potential success in a post-Brexit world. However, ten months of controversial foreign policy decisions and repeated interventions in the UK’s political and security debates by President Trump and his administration have strained the once stable alliance.

The ‘special relationship’ was first put under pressure within hours of a seemingly amicable meeting between US President Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Theresa May shortly after his inauguration in January 2017. This was due to President Donald Trump’s signing of a controversial travel ban on several Muslim majority nations. Throughout the first year of his presidency, President Donald Trump’s many controversial foreign policy decisions – including his unpopular stance on the Iran nuclear deal, his aggressive interactions with North Korea, and his withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Accord – have forced Prime Minister Theresa May and other leaders in the United Kingdom to provide public rebukes of their oldest ally.

President Donald Trump’s controversial decision to retweet anti-Muslim videos shared by far-right political group Britain First and his subsequent war of words with Prime Minister May in November of 2017 are just the latest developments in a series of tense exchanges and foreign policy disagreements between the leaders of the two countries.

Prime Minister Theresa May joined in the global condemnation of the retweeting. In response to President Trump’s recommendation that she focus her attentions on terrorist attacks on UK soil, May responded by saying that ‘the fact that we work together does not mean that we are afraid to say when we think the United States have got it wrong, and to be very clear with them’.

It is public disagreements such as these that threaten the status quo of trust and stability that defines the once ‘special relationship’, and which undermines the credibility of the strength of this relationship – an aspect that is relied upon during periods of insecurity and uncertainty.

However, while its credibility may be damaged in the short-term future, the special relationship has proven to be resilient, enduring several wars, disputes, and disagreements. Tim Oliver, an expert in Europe-North America relations at the London School of Economics, emphasises that this relationship has the ability to endure periods of uncertainty and tension as ‘the core US-UK special relationship is co-operation in nuclear weapons, special forces and intelligence '. However, Oliver admits that President Donald Trump is putting pressure on the alliance ‘in ways we have not seen before’. Therefore, the strength of and value placed on the special relationship between United States and the United Kingdom means that it will most likely be able to endure this unpredictable period in global politics.

The governments of the two countries will continue to work closely on issues that will mutually benefit themselves and their respective populations, and the many disagreements between the two leaders may eventually be forgotten. However, it is difficult to determine with certainty as to the exact amount of pressure that the 'special relationship' between the United States and the United Kingdom can withstand in the uncertain future that lies ahead.

Meghna Srinivas is the United States Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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