Less than a month into Donald J. Trump’s presidency, relations between the United States and many other countries have gone sour. One nation nervously watching events in Washington, D.C., and clearly dismayed at much of what the new president is doing is my other country, the United Kingdom.
Historically, the U.S. and the U.K. have been strong allies, partners in the so-called special relationship. There are many different facets to this international friendship, ranging from the strategic (say, fighting World Wars or staring down commies together) to the personal (Trump’s mother was Scottish; U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has dual citizenship; Winston Churchill’s mother was American; and lots of people have mixed U.S.-U.K. families, just like all all three of the aforementioned—and me).
But now, there is trouble. The new president’s invitation to British Prime Minister Theresa May to let him know if she’s in D.C. left British civil servants “amused and befuddled,” which is a nicer way of saying it meant them muttering “wtf” while walking around government offices. There have been rumblings that Trump choosing to speak to May only after talking to 10 other world leaders was weird and insulting, and indicative of a diplomatic downgrade.
Trump’s apparent treatment of longtime U.S. allies as starting out on a par with longtime adversaries like Russia has been of concern in London also. May has voiced her disapproval of Trump’s immigration executive order, which applies to dual citizens of the U.K. and affected countries. The outcry over a planned Trump state visit to the U.K., during which he would meet the queen, has been—to use a favorite Trump term—huge. And now, the speaker of the House of Commons has said he is opposed to allowing Trump to address Parliament in Westminster Hall—something over which the speaker actually has some power.
As someone who opposed Trump’s bid to become our 45th president, who deeply dislikes his Middle East executive order, and who thinks him dangerously naïve regarding Russia and insufficiently supportive of some of our allies, I find it tempting to pump my fist and yell “right on!” when efforts are made to punish him for what I see as bad—dangerous, even— behavior. But the truth is, the U.K. under May’s leadership should stay engaged with the U.S. under Trump—even if the special relationship currently seems more like a rocky, empty-nester marriage in which one party occasionally looks like they’re interested in playing the field again.
Obviously, on a personal level, this matters to me. It’s nice to have dual citizenship of two countries that pretty much always see eye-to-eye and generally like each other. Being a dual citizen of, say, the U.S. and Turkey might not be so straightforward and immune to my own internal conflicts.
But the special relationship also matters for both countries’ broader populations, and the world at large, especially in the era of Brexit and at a time when the U.S. seems to be turning inward, and rejecting our historical role as a superpower keen to engage on the world stage.
Let’s acknowledge that for as straightforward and logical as Brexit proponents make cutting a good free trade or common market deal between the U.K. and the EU sound, the reality is that this is going to be tricky. There is the issue of financial services passporting rights, and the interest that other European countries have shown in wanting to oust the city of London from its top-dog role in the world of international finance and their use of the EU in trying to accomplish that. In some quarters, there is also just plain spite. In this context, the U.K. could surely benefit from a getting a free trade deal in place with the U.S., and quick. For the U.S.’ part, roughly every fifth tweet from the new commander in chief looks like the opening salvo in a trade war. If Trump is going to try to kill NAFTA, or renegotiate it to death, and incentivize China to cut sweet trade deals with all and sundry, leaving the U.S. out of the loop, we’d better have at least one good trading partner. The U.K. could be it.
And British engagement with Trump’s team to accomplish just that seems to be yielding better-than-expected results so far. Earlier this year, Foreign Secretary Johnson met with Trump’s nationalist adviser, Steve Bannon, typically seen as an architect of Trump’s “isolationist until we decide to bomb the hell out of you” stump-speech-foreign-policy, and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Based on Johnson’s comments after the fact, a free trade pact looked tentatively feasible. If you buy the theory that more trade between nations tends to cement friendships, help avert war, and benefit average consumers, a somewhat rosier outlook for U.S.-U.K. free trade—thanks to the U.K.’s willingness to engage with Trump, despite protests and petitions at home—looks like the smart move.
The same is true when looking at international security. Yes, there are Britons who feel spurned and worried by Trump given his apparent bromance with Putin. I’ll even admit to being one of them.
But it’s hard to believe you hold together NATO and other traditional security alliances by discarding the shreds in a grandiose exercise in catharsis, outrage, or even self-pity. The smarter thing to do, for now at least, is what the U.K. appears to be doing: Hold onto the remnants, and look for opportunities to weave fresh strands into them and strengthen things anew.
This won’t be easy with Trump. His personality and temperament, and therefore his predictability, are—to put it nicely—a tad different from what one typically gets with a president. That said, whether it’s attributable to Trump being an Anglophile as Nigel Farage has asserted, whether it’s to do with his mother’s Scottish roots and a typical Scottish-American reverence for the “old country” (or indeed the union of which it remains a part), or whether it’s to do with Trump just liking Anglo-Saxon countries more than all the others, maintaining a decent working relationship with the U.S. looks eminently more doable for the U.K. than it does for Mexico, China, or Japan, to pick three obvious examples of Trump-designated foes.
With the U.S. and the U.K. standing together, the West has managed to win two World Wars, and banish communism to the furthest, and least powerful, corners of the earth. Collectively, we’ve stood up for human rights and free markets in many parts of the world, even if less consistently than some might like. We share a common history, a common language, and a great deal else culturally—now, still, just as we did 100 years ago, 200 years ago, and even 400 years ago.
I’m skeptical that Trump is sufficiently committed to the cause, let alone as committed as May, Johnson, or other leaders in the U.K. government. But I’m also cognizant that President Obama made numerous early missteps with regard to the U.K.—never forget his being “too tired” to greet then-PM Gordon Brown, or his gifting Brown a set of DVDs or the queen an iPod (she already owned one), or an Obama State Department official allegedly saying there was “nothing special” about the U.K., or Obama talking up France (with which England, at least, has something of a historical rivalry) as the U.S.’ strongest ally. And even the administration of President Reagan, who as a Republican, I am bound to resist criticizing, was, from a pure British standpoint, insufficiently U.K.-friendly with regard to the matter of the affiliation of the Falklands Islands.
Trump presents greater and different worries still, but the point is the special relationship seems to be a pretty strong one that can survive some damage. Let’s hope it stays that way, and that common ground can be found, maintained, and expanded upon—nationalist-isolationist instincts in the US, and protesters and petition-signers in the UK be damned.