Trump visit to the UK comes amid growing tensions in Anglo-American relationship
For all the fanfare, much needs to be done to repair rifts over sanctions on Iran, Huawei and the EU
For all the fanfare that will mark US President Donald Trump’s state visit to Britain next week, much work needs to be done to repair the significant tensions that have arisen in US-UK relations during Theresa May’s time as prime minister.
During his three-day stay, Mr Trump will receive the full panoply of royal hospitality, with meetings scheduled with the Queen and the Prince of Wales and the unrivalled pageantry of a state banquet.
The president will then travel to Normandy to attend the commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, the historic high point in Anglo-American co-operation, when a combined force of American and British troops spearheaded the successful invasion of northern France on June 6, 1944, thereby laying the foundations for the liberation of Europe from Nazi occupation.
It was the close alliance forged between Washington and London during the dark days of the Second World War that led to the so-called “special relationship” between Britain and the US, one that took on added significance during the Cold War when the priority changed to protecting Europe from the Soviet Union. More recently, the strength of this enduring relationship has seen the US and Britain playing a lead role in recent military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as being key players in the successful operation to destroy ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
It is a relationship, moreover, that has continued to flourish since Mr Trump took office, even though the markedly differing personalities of the president and the British prime minister have meant that the two leaders have not always seen eye to eye.
The importance Mr Trump attaches to the US-UK relationship was reflected in the fact that Mrs May was the first world leader to be invited to meet him at the White House after he became president and the prime minister was photographed holding the president’s arm.
But even though relations between the pair remain cordial, there has been growing frustration within the Trump administration over the way Mrs May has conducted herself on the world stage, particularly her calamitous approach to the Brexit negotiations.
Mr Trump publicly applauded the decision of the British people to vote for Brexit in the 2016 referendum and his personal preference is for Britain to leave the European Union without a deal, thereby opening the way for the US to negotiate its own trade arrangements with Britain.
The US president even suggested Mrs May sue the EU as an opening ploy in the negotiations, an aggressive stance that the prime minister chose not to follow.
The current statemate in London over the Brexit negotiations, in which Mrs May has been forced out of office over her inability to win parliamentary backing for her EU deal, has caused exasperation in Washington, which fears that Britain, instead of leaving the EU, might now end up being tied to the union’s complex trading arrangements in a way that limits its ability to do deals with countries such as the US.
Nor is Brexit the only subject where the Trump administration has been disappointed by the UK government’s approach.
Britain’s refusal to support Washington’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal has also been a source of friction. Britain, in common with the other European signatories to the deal, France and Germany, has maintained its commitment to the 2015 agreement, arguing that it is the best way of preventing Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.
Moreover, from Washington’s perspective, the Europeans have been actively trying to undermine the impact of US sanctions on Iran by providing legal cover – the so-called special purpose vehicle – that provides protection for European companies that continue to trade with Tehran against potential retaliatory measures in the US.
The initiative has singularly failed to achieve its goal because all the big European conglomerates have already cut their trade ties with Tehran on the basis that they would far prefer to do lucrative trade deals with the US than with the bankrupt regime leaders in Tehran.
Another source of tension between Washington and London has been the British government’s refusal to deny the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei access to the forthcoming 5G mobile network.
The US has banned Huawei from involvement in building the 5G network on the grounds that the company, which has close ties to the Chinese intelligence services, might use its equipment to access sensitive American security data.
Other countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, have adopted a similarly robust approach. By contrast Mrs May, in one of her last acts as prime minister, has allowed Huawei to continue working on Britain’s next generation telecoms infrastructure, a decision which, given the close intelligence co-operation that exists between Britain and the US, has not gone down well in Washington.
As one senior Trump administration told me this week: “Britain does not understand the strength of feeling in the US on this issue.”
But now that Mrs May has announced she will stand down on June 7, the Trump administration will be hoping her successor as prime minister will adopt a more empathetic approach to their American allies.
On that score, there can be little doubt that Mr Trump’s preferred candidate, among the long list of Tory MPs who have entered the race to replace Mrs May, is former foreign secretary Boris Johnson.
He is said to have formed a close bond with Mr Trump, with whom he shares a number of striking similarities. Apart from the distinctive blond hair, both are politicians who are inclined to indulge in acts of showmanship and make injudicious comments in public.
Mr Johnson, who is rumoured to be having a private meeting with Mr Trump during his visit to Britain, also demonstrated his pro-American credentials when he was foreign secretary – an outlook which, if he succeeds in his bid to replace Mrs May, will help repair the damage done to Britain’s historic relationship with the US by Mrs May’s unhappy term in office.
Con Coughlin is the Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor
Updated: May 30, 2019 07:41 PM