We are living under a presidential administration that has made a stunning turnaround from Obama’s foreign policy, which relegated Britain to the back of the queue. Unlike the Obama-era hostility, Trump stands squarely with our staunchest ally. The latest example of this support was John Bolton’s statement Tuesday to UK officials that “Britain’s success in exiting the European Union will be a statement about democratic rule and constitutional government. That’s important for Britain. But it’s important for the United States, too. So we see a successful exit as being very much in our interest, and there’s no quid pro quo on any of these issues.”
Like so many of the cast-off policies of the Obama administration, President Trump has re-awakened the goodwill of the Anglo-American Special Relationship. Over the course of his terms as president, Obama consistently sent a message that our ally and mother country was nothing more to the U.S. than any other member of the global community of nations. One of Obama’s first actions upon assuming office showed his overt antagonism to U.S.-UK relations: he had the bust of the greatest-ever Anglo-American, Winston Churchill, removed from the Oval Office. This action set the tone for Obama’s relationship with Britain.
Shockingly, Jeremy Shapiro, a former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs between 2009 and 2013, said that under Obama, the U.S.-UK bond “was never really something that was very important to the United States” and that while “it was very important for us to mention the special relationship in every press conference that we had when the UK were here.… we laughed about it behind the scenes. Typically, I would try and slip in a reference to the Malvinas or something to spoil it.”
Then, during the BP oil incident in the Gulf, Obama was critical of the British company’s role instead of supporting our strongest ally in a time of crisis. It was a far cry from Margaret Thatcher’s statement when she first met with Ronald Reagan in 1981: “Your problems will be our problems, and when you look for friends, we shall be there.”
President Trump could hardly stand in more stark contrast to his immediate predecessor. Trump has been a bulwark of support for Britain as it navigates its most challenging political crisis in recent memory. He has shown unequivocal support both for the democratic principle of Brexit and in pledging to offer the coveted free trade agreement, which he forecast will be “very substantial” and “could lead to a ‘three to four, five times’ increase in current trade.” National Security Advisor Bolton corroborated this and further distinguished the Trump approach from the Obama one by adding that the UK is “first in line” for a trade deal playing off Obama’s “back of the queue” negativity about such an agreement if the UK left the EU.
It is hardly surprising that Trump and his advisers would defend Britain’s right to sovereignty considering their championing of our own country’s exceptionalism. Trump rightly believes that nations should put their own interests first, and that they can achieve mutually beneficial best outcomes together when every nation involved is strong. A strong America needs strong allies, and as our largest trading partner, and most important defense partner, it is in America’s interest for the UK to be at its strongest.
Disagreements even in the most solid relationships are common — the recent leaked diplomatic memos resulting in the UK ambassador’s resignation, for example — but allies who share the assets, intelligence, and common ideologies that the U.S. and UK do get past these weaknesses and emerge closer. But it is clear that with Boris Johnson and Trump in office this is an opportunity for the Special Relationship to rise to a status not seen since the Reagan-Thatcher years.
In 1985, upon the 200th anniversary of the establishment of U.S.-UK diplomatic relations, President Reagan said, “The United States and the United Kingdom are bound together by inseparable ties of ancient history and present friendship.… There’s been something very special about the friendships between the leaders of our two countries. And may I say to my friend the Prime Minister, I’d like to add two more names to this list of affection — Thatcher and Reagan.”
The Anglo-American alignment of the Reagan-Thatcher years led to momentous achievements, including the fall the of the Iron Curtain. With the current goodwill on both sides of the Atlantic, perhaps we are moving into a new chapter in which similar heroic events will again be possible.
Lee Cohen is a senior fellow of the Danube Institute in Budapest and the London Center for Policy Research. He formerly was adviser on Western Europe to the House Foreign Affairs Committee and director of the Congressional United Kingdom Caucus.