Donald Trump may have described the Trans-Atlantic relationship as “the highest level of special”, but recent contradictions in the British press beg to differ.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s tight-lipped grimace alongside Trump at the July 13 press conference at her Chequers residence, as he clutched her hand, was symbolic of recent Anglo-American relations: strained and embarrassed but persistent. And Trump’s stay in the UK not only raised questions about the validity of the special relationship, but also about Britain’s position in the world.
Like its predecessors, the current Government sees Britain as a global leader in security, international justice, and peacekeeping. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council and the G7, the UK has a prominent position to shape international agendas amongst developed and developing states alike. However, London’s conduct in recent years demonstrates that the UK has opted for the easy route on the international stage, supporting an American-led status quo which has been economically lucrative and, in general, politically safe.
That easy route has meant that British foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, has often been dictated by our most powerful ally. Now, as the UK distances itself from the European Union, it must re-examines its aims and political positions. Rather than continuing to passively legitimize the US, Britain must exercise autonomy to promote the values that London’s politicians claim are central to national identity.
The Torturer’s Accomplice
Throughout the “War on Terror”, British security forces followed the lead of the CIA in its mission to extinguish the threat of terrorism. June’s damning report by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee revealed that UK intelligence services “turned a blind eye” to the mistreatment of detainees at the hands of American personnel and other foreign governments.
The report found 13 incidents where British officers witnessed prisoners being mistreated by US agents and two cases in which they took part. MI5 and MI6 directly participated in more than 40 cases of extraordinary rendition, some of which involving UK citizens. US agency staff briefed British security services after 9/11 on hundreds of other occasions, but UK personnel failed to act “in the interests of the broader relationship”. Without ever taking a significant role, Britain had implicated itself in one of the greatest scandals of the past two decades.
Keen to distance her government’s approach from these “failed policies of the past”, Theresa May called more strongly than her predecessor for a change in UK foreign policy. She argued against any Western intervention which aims to shape the world “in our own image”.
Yet she still maintains that responsibility for the future of the world should remain in the hands of “our two countries together”. The enduring idea of the “special relationship” as global leadership remains potent, not just in political rhetoric but in practice.
However, as the ISC report reflects, Britain is the junior partner. Just as the US led the coalition into Iraq and Afghanistan, so Washington initiated direct Western military intervention in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and in the ongoing Syrian civil war, with Britain in a background role.
From covert operations training and arming rebel fighters to airstrikes against Syrian bases, US, British, and French forces have intervened in the conflict while disregarding international channels. The Trump Administration’s airstrikes in April undermined the authority of vital international institutions, principally the UN, in the mission to bring about a peaceful end to a complex crisis. Joining the operation to give it an air of legitimacy, the UK ingored the UN Charter and pushed the organizaton’s goal of a ceasefire further into the distance. As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said at the time, such acts will only “escalate the situation and worsen the suffering of the Syrian people”.
Fuelling a Humanitarian Crisis
Since the Cold War, Saudi Arabia has largely enjoyed a close political alliance with Washington. It is no coincidence that it was Mr Trump’s first destination for a state visit as President of the United States. Despite its numerous human rights violations, both internationally and domestically, Riyadh continues to receive a regular supply of arms and aircraft from the US and the wider Western world.
The UK is one of the principal suppliers, selling an estimated £10 billion in military hardware to the kingdom since 2010. British military advisors are involved in the brutal Saudi-led bombing of Yemen that began in 2015, with Amnesty International documenting at least 36 of coalition airstrikes against Houthi insurgents which violate international law, with hospitals, food production, and infrastructure targeted.
This Government is just the latest in a long series exporting arms to Saudi Arabia since 1965, a “special relationship” in its own right. The trade may be profitable and it may be an established feature of international relations, but this does not legitimate it as a policy. British industry and politicians are facilitating crimes against humanity.
Trump’s Presidency and the Saudi alignment are ongoing reminders that the UK must reassess where it stands in the world and what its international role should be. Rather than reinforcing the status quo of dubious trade deals and military interventionism, Britain should act as the global leader it rhetorically professes to be.
If the UK is to be an effective member of the international system, it will have to pursue the political resolution of conflicts, not enable — as a participant or arms supplier — military interventions. It will have to work within the UN and other multilateral institutions, not succumb to obstruction and interference from allies and rivals alike.
While it cannot be the world’s moral arbiter — even if its allies attempt this — it can be part of a more constructive internatonal approach. But it can do so only if it re-examines the national identity and values of a “Global Britain”.