By Arab News
By Zaid M. Belbagi*
As concrete blocks were dragged across Regent’s Park to fortify the US President Donald Trump’s temporary headquarters, many expressed concern as to the status of the alliance between the UK and the US. Mr. Trump’s off-the-cuff style, the spectre of a Conservative Party leadership contest and differences over Huawei and Iran were set to test the resolve of the so-called “special relationship”. Despite the visit being fraught with the possibility of diplomatic peril, as the president departed aboard Airforce One his trip was applauded as a great success from the perspective of all those involved.
Prime Minister Theresa May invited the controversial US leader as she fought for the future of her premiership. Dogged by troublesome negotiations with the EU, cabinet mutiny and parliamentary division, the invitation of the world’s greatest superpower seemed an excellent idea to bolster her fortunes. However, following the announcement of her resignation a week beforehand, the visit was suddenly extraordinarily badly timed. Had the palace been browbeaten into inviting only the third US president (of the 12 in office during the Queen’s reign) for a state visit, the diplomatic awkwardness of the trip’s timing was not lost on Foreign Office insiders.
First coined by Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1946, the special relationship was born out of the US and UK having overcome the global turmoil, terror and loss of life of World War II together. A shared language, continued military cooperation and strong commercial ties have characterised the relationship. Concern has steadily grown as at first the Obama administration did not see eye to eye with No. 10, and then the Trump White House began rewriting post-1945 geopolitical realities. The president’s combative approach to traditional Western allies since his first G20 and NATO engagements has represented a significant shift in US foreign policy. Separately, the UK visit came during a growing number of trade disputes with countries across the world that demonstrate the severe economic consequences of the US president’s “America First” approach to bilateral partnerships.
It was therefore significant that President Trump left the UK with the Prime Minister heralding “positive discussions” about an ambitious trade agreement. Trump added that the deal would be “phenomenal,” leading to trade that would be “two and even three times of what we’re doing right now.” This was welcome news for British business as the prospect of Brexit is the most significant geopolitical move for the UK since World War II, making London more reliant on the US as ties loosen with the other 27 members of the EU. Though thousands of people protested in central London on Tuesday against Mr.Trump’s glitzy state visit, numbers were far down from the tens of thousands who gathered to oppose his working visit last year. There is little doubt that to many, this visit had to succeed and that differences that Trump has had with European allies, provided an opportune moment for the UK to focus on similarities with its American cousins.
Building strong commercial ties was not even beyond the Queen as she charmed a clearly dazzled President, lauding how the two countries were the largest investors in each other’s economies. The role of palace in the visit provided a masterclass in how experienced political figures have an institutional memory which inspires awe and confidence. The President nodded politely as the Queen reminded him of his Scottish roots and of how the Special Relationship once saved the world from tyranny. The centerpiece of the visit was a very poignant open-air ceremony in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings. By drawing the US president into an event of this nature, both the Foreign Office and the palace very publically reminded him of the two country’s special partnership and indeed the wider family of western alliances. There was never a more important moment to remind American decision makers of historical realities, as the post-war global order looks ripe for strategic reconfiguration.
It was appropriate, therefore, that while much of the Western media scrutinized the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom, another close — and growing — geopolitical and economic bond was also being built upon. As China’s President Xi Jinping makes a state visit to Russia to meet his counterpart Vladimir Putin, the two countries are increasingly at odds with the United States. As they feel the long arm of US trade and foreign policy hurting their interests, they have actively sought to undermine the international community, exploiting tensions between the US and its allies. With Xi Jinping gearing to announce his agenda for global governance at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, it was reassuring to see the special relationship back on track, critical to a Western alliance system that underpins international peace and security.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid