Analysis

'Special Relationship' With No One: Trump-U.K. Spat Is a Cautionary Tale for Israel

Old, mythical alliance was gone long before British ambassador's remarks on a 'dysfunctional' U.S. administration were leaked. But Israel can’t rely on Trump, either

Theresa May speaks with Donald Trump during the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, June 28, 2019.
Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via Reuters

Not that long ago, a British ambassador to the United States would have had preferential access to some of the most senior officials in the State Department and White House. And occasional face time with the president himself. This no longer seems to be the case, even before the latest revelations that are now rocking the “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom.

The assessments passed by Britain’s ambassador to the United States, Kim Darroch, back to the Foreign Office in London are hardly original or insightful. If anything, they reflect the fact that his impressions are no more well-informed than those that can be read or heard in the news. He wrote in the diplomatic cables, which were leaked in the British media on Sunday, that President Donald Trump “radiates insecurity” and that his administration is “dysfunctional” and “inept.”

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This is not the stuff of detailed analysis or privileged background information. The only surprising thing here is the lack of detail and the general (and rather bland) tone. But frankly, if Sir Kim had more favorable things to say of Trump, it would have been shocking — not to mention a dereliction of his duty to his superiors to state matters as they are.

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The content of the ambassador’s cables is not important. They were meant to remain confidential, for the eyes of senior British officials only. What is important is the way they have been framed, first by a certain section of the British media and the political establishment in London, and then by Trump himself in a series of Twitter tantrums.

The British angle is interesting, because this doesn’t look like just another leak. The quotes seem tailored to create maximum embarrassment for the ambassador and the current lame-duck government of the soon-to-resign Prime Minister Theresa May. They span over two years, and one of the leaked memos is very recent, regarding Trump’s decision last month not to launch an attack on Iran. It looks like someone was keeping a file on the ambassador’s critical comment on Trump, waiting to release it at an opportune moment. The choice of the journalist who got the leak — a hyperpartisan pro-Brexit muckraker — indicates the intentions of the leaker.

The American, or specifically the Trump, angle also warrants more analysis in this case than just another presidential tirade on Twitter. Trump wasn’t just responding to Darroch’s remarks: Both of the threads he dedicated to them also included intense criticism of May for not heeding his advice and in her “failed” negotiations with the European Union over Brexit.

On the eve of Election Day in the United States, Trump promised he would win and that his victory would be “Brexit Plus, Plus, Plus.” Not that Trump understands the complex relationship between Britain and Europe, but he has long seen the EU as a trade rival to the United States and frequently lambasted it in tweets and interviews. He regarded the referendum vote in favor of Britain leaving the EU, which took place five months before the U.S. election, both as vindication of his beliefs and a harbinger of his unlikely win. As far as Trump is concerned, Britain is letting him down by not having left the EU yet. Nothing else matters.

Trump doesn’t have a real foreign policy. He only likes foreign leaders who pander to his vanity. It doesn’t have anything to do with an ideology or a coherent view of America’s interests. That is why he gets on with Kim Jong Un, who flatters him; Putin, whom he respects for being a tough guy; and Emmanuel Macron, who serenaded him on Bastille Day and gave him the idea of holding a Fourth of July military parade in Washington. Benjamin Netanyahu, of course, knows exactly how to pander to Trump, but has another level of advantage over every other world leader.

Trump is instinctively suspicious of foreigners and anything that is alien to him. But Netanyahu is not really an alien as far as he’s concerned. Netanyahu is the only world leader Trump knew before taking office; they go back to the 1980s, when Israel’s young ambassador to the United Nations was first introduced to the brash real-estate developer. That counts for a lot. As does the fact that the few advisers Trump trusts — his lawyers and son-in-law — are also Netanyahu fans. Add to this Netanyahu’s assiduous courting of what has become Trump’s base, long before Trump joined politics, and the result is that in this administration, only Israel has a “special relationship” with the United States.

The much-vaunted “special relationship” between the two English-speaking nations on either side of the Atlantic was always something of a myth. Rooted in World War II, the special relationship label ignores the fact that the United States demanded full payment for military equipment and didn’t join the war until it was attacked at Pearl Harbor. And the personal relationship between Winston Churchill and Roosevelt was never as warm as some made it out to be. FDR took the Russian dictator Stalin’s side in some of the most crucial arguments at their summits.

The special relationship was always more a delusion of grandeur on the British side than reality. During the Cold War, it reflected the importance of NATO and Britain’s premier position among the Alliance’s European members. But only in the Reagan years, when the president actually saw in Margaret Thatcher an ideological twin in their joint hatred of communism, was the relationship truly special. Once the Cold War ended, the illusion was maintained for a few years, through the attempts of Tony Blair to curry favor with George Bush. But it became increasingly hard to pretend that Britain was any more special than America’s other allies.

Trump has no time for allies anyway. His worldview is molded by sycophants, and the Brits who know the way to his heart — TV personality Piers Morgan and politician Nigel Farage — are Brexit supporters. His animosity toward the EU is matched by his feeling that NATO is largely a racket designed to get the United States to pay for Europe’s defense. His only use for Britain is as a place he can go for state visits and be feted by poor, suffering Queen Elizabeth (who gets a nice word from him in the tweets).

This is a cautionary tale for Israelis as well. Trump doesn’t support Israel. He has no inkling of the issues facing it. He feels comfortable with Israel because of his personal rapport with his friend Bibi. Today, Israel enjoys a special relationship with the United States. But if Israel’s voters, or its criminal justice system, finally turf Netanyahu out of office, he will find a way to show his displeasure. Trump only has special relationships with himself.