Presidents’ Day – what does the future hold for the ‘special’ relationship?

With Presidents’ Day falling on the 21st of February, Business Leader spoke to several experts about what the future holds for the ‘special’ relationship between the US and UK.

What is the ‘special’ relationship between the UK and US?

This is the term used to describe relations between the UK and US, and although it has been used for some time, not everyone is aware of its first usage or how the relationship between the two nations has changed over the years.

We spoke to Professor David Dunn, the Chair in International Politics at the University of Birmingham, who gave us an insight into the history of the special relationship.

He commented: “The special relationship is a term that was coined, used and promoted as a way of demonstrating the closeness between Churchill and Roosevelt and the union of the English-speaking peoples of the world, the Atlantic Charter, and the commonality of values and interests in the Second World War.

“Thereafter, from 1946, it represented Britain being side by side with America and fighting the Cold War, and it had huge resonances that those things were in alignment.

“At this time, a large number of Americans’ experience with the UK is fighting with the UK during and after the Second World War, and in the Cold War period. Since then, there are several secular trends diminishing that in the sense that those who have experience of that close cooperation are dying out.”

Of course, a lot has changed since the Cold War and even more since the days of Roosevelt and Churchill. So, how is the UK-US relationship looking today?

Clive Webb, Professor of Modern American History at the University of Sussex, explains: “Relations between the UK and US are as bad as they have been in living memory. There was an assumption following the electoral defeat of Donald Trump that the reset button would be pressed but this has not proven to be the case.

“Joe Biden is a much more conventional politician than his predecessor, but there is no chemistry between him and Boris Johnson, either personal or political. There remains a pervasive suspicion about Johnson on the part of the current administration. He is perceived as ‘Trump-lite’, an unscrupulous politician who panders to popular prejudice. The partygate scandal has also done little for his reputation across the Atlantic Ocean.”

With the relationship in such a torrid place right now, 2022 might be a difficult year for UK-US relations.

Will there a be a trade deal in 2022?

Since Brexit, the UK Government has regularly said that launching negotiations of a trade agreement with the US is one of its priorities. But considering current UK-US relations, is there much hope of a trade deal in 2022?

Peter Holmes, Fellow of the UK Trade Policy Observatory (UKTPO) and a Director of InterAnalysis, doesn’t think so.

He said: “The UK government had big hopes of a trade deal under Trump, but the Biden administration is not interested. It has suspended negotiations and even done a deal to remove illegal steel tariffs on the EU but not the UK. The US has also signed a deal to ensure no Border Carbon Adjustments with the EU but not with the UK.

“Relations with the EU are much more important than with the UK for Washington. In any case, if there were to be a trade deal with the US, the UK would have to make concessions to the US that would be politically extremely unpopular with the electorate.”

It should be noted that the UK is currently the US’ biggest trading partner for services and its seventh-largest for services. However, estimates suggest that a free trade agreement between the two countries would increase UK exports by 4.3-7.7% and imports by 4.1-8.6% in the long run.

According to an analysis by the UK Trade Policy Observatory, the UK’s current trade deal with the EU resulted in £44 billion of lost trade in the first seven months of its enforcement. So, a free trade agreement with America could help to recover some of this lost revenue for the Treasury.

So, why is it unlikely to happen?

David Dunn provides further insight into the relationship between the US and the EU and the impact Brexit has had on this.

“Brexit is massively self-defeating to the UK-US relationship – ironically – despite its intention of trying to free itself from European collective responsibility, and therefore trying to be more important to the Americans. And the reason why Brexit is disastrous to the UK-US relationship is that Britain was valuable to the US primarily as a way of influencing the EU by being a member of the EU.

“The collective, more robust approach to international politics the UK and US shared could be channelled through Britain’s membership of the EU to take the European Union in a direction that was more favourable to America by virtue of Britain’s agency within that organisation.

“Outside of that organisation, America was left trying to deal with the EU directly, which is why Germany is now the main focus of America’s attention in Europe because it has to try and do things with members of the EU and EU policy. And as a consequence of that, Britain has become less relevant because of Brexit.”

However, Brexit isn’t the only reason behind the UK’s flagging relevance to the US.

David Dunn continues: “The other structural thing is it that Britain has massively reduced its armed forces. Going back to 1990, when the end of the Cold War happened, there were 350,000 soldiers in the British Army, whilst there are 72,000 today. That demonstrates how much Europe had become a bonsai Armed Forces, a term for an army that is small, perfectly formed, but not a proper size.

“What that also means is that Britain effectively failed in Helmand Province, Basra, Iraq and Afghanistan, along with other attempts to be relevant and useful to the Americans. In both wars, for example, Britain’s contribution was less than it might have been. So, in terms of Britain being a useful spear carrier for American interventions, they are no longer relevant.

“So, what you’ve got is a loss of political power through Brexit, a loss of political and military relevance through the cuts to the armed forces and the policy failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, a reluctance to intervene anytime soon as a consequence of Iraq and Afghanistan, a strategic shift towards China, and diminishing relevance by virtue of demographics and aging population.”

So, what does the future hold for the relationship?

Whilst a UK-US trade deal appears dead in the water for now, the UK and US are expected to maintain a relationship in other matters.

Clive Webb explains: “The ties that bind the two countries are deep, operating at an institutional level beyond individual politicians, so there is still a lot of cooperation. But Washington looks as much to Paris, Brussels and Berlin as it does to London in formulating and implementing foreign policy.”

David Dunn: “There will remain close relationships on intelligence, on defence and on sharing nuclear technology. There is also a diplomatic similarity of approach. However, the failure to invest in armed forces, intelligence and the Foreign Office diminishes Britain’s world role. The cuts to aid policy diminishes Britain’s world role further and its relevance to America because of that. You can’t be a global power on the cheap, yet that seems to be what Britain thinks it can do.

“Britain has created a very awkward relationship, and increasingly one of distance, with its major European partners. As that policy spirals on, with the Brexit process creating distance, obstacles and barriers, and breaks that attempt to try and create a consensus European perspective, Britain makes itself less relevant in Europe and less relevant to America as a consequence.”

With the Biden administration taking an unfavourable stance towards Boris Johnson, Brexit and the UK seemingly becoming increasingly irrelevant to the US, 2022 could be a year where the UK-US relationship is categorised as ‘special’ for all the wrong reasons.

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