Jonathan Freedland writes: The focus now is on May’s invitation to Trump to come to Britain on a state visit. You will recall she made that offer – usually extended only late in a presidency – on that lightning trip to Washington, when the prime minister thought it would be smart to be the first foreign leader to visit the new president, and to come bearing extravagant gifts. How she must regret that move now: Trump can’t possibly be given the red carpet, gold-coach-on-the-Mall treatment, not in the current climate.
But to rescind an invitation – one that officially comes from the Queen – would be an enormous insult that would only escalate tensions further. So May must hope the current state of limbo will persist indefinitely: the invitation will remain suspended in the air, as the Americans avoid setting a date for fear that, were Trump to come, he would be humiliated by the sight of 65 million Brits giving him a two-fingered salute.
Still, the very fact that this ludicrous situation even exists points to a larger problem: the absurdity that is the so-called special relationship.
So-called because it’s only the Brits who call it that. The Americans never use the phrase unprompted. When they do, it’s only out of an embarrassed obligation to accommodate British neediness. A former state department official, Jeremy Shapiro, admitted in October that his bosses were always careful to use the phrase when the Brits were in town, “but really we laughed about it behind the scenes”.
And yet it matters to us desperately – and the Americans can smell our desperation. How much time does a visiting British prime minister get with the president? What kind of gift do they hand over? Is the body language warm or chilly? All these questions have obsessed the political class, policymakers and journalists alike, for decades. But this is not diplomacy: it’s neurosis.
Perhaps one could laugh off this behaviour, dismissing as mere pathos the notion of a country that thinks it alone has a special relationship with Washington, unaware that a 2009 study found that 14 of 25 EU nations surveyed all believed they too were special to the Americans. But this fetish has real-world consequences.
It was the driving spirit behind Tony Blair’s catastrophic decision to support the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Blair’s judgment was that the paramount strategic objective was to be at Washington’s side: “With you, whatever.” All other considerations were subordinate to that goal.
That same urge propelled May to visit Trump in Washington too soon, where she “put her career, her reputation and the national interest in the hands of someone who can land almost anywhere on any topic and be on the opposite side the very next day”, says Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
We are, says Leonard, over-invested emotionally in the fantasy we call the special relationship. Yes, there is shared history; and, yes, intelligence and special forces cooperation is intensely close. But for the rest, we need to end the neurotic neediness – and be a bit more like the French. [Continue reading…]