The US-UK 'special relationship' isn't broken – it's just entering a dangerous new phase

Michael H Fuchs
Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

The dumpster fires of US and UK politics have converged, and the special relationship is going up in flames.

The resignation of Kim Darroch, UK ambassador to the US – and a longtime British civil servant – because of a temper tantrum by Donald Trump is an illustration of the toxic politics of both countries, and the real damage it is doing to the US-UK alliance.

Related: Kim Darroch has resigned. Now Britain risks becoming a vassal of the US | Martin Kettle

The events of the last week would have been hard to imagine before Trump. The Daily Mail published leaked cables that the British embassy in Washington sent back to London describing the mess that substitutes for a presidential administration in DC today. In doing his job by sending honest, private analysis to his government, Darroch described Trump as “inept” and “incompetent” and called the White House “uniquely dysfunctional” in messages that describe what is readily apparent to anyone who has read the news over the last two and a half years.

In response, Trump tweeted out a series of criticisms of Darroch and Theresa May’s government and said of Darroch, “We will no longer deal with him.” Darroch’s resignation came as no surprise.

Trump’s attacks on the UK come as no surprise either. Despite the “special relationship” between the two countries and the prime minister’s efforts to forge a working relationship with Trump, Trump has reciprocated with endless public insults of May and the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan – not to mention policy decisions detrimental to the alliance, as Thomas Wright has documented.

In a time when partisan politics creates gridlock in DC and polarization makes it more and more difficult to have a constructive national conversation about substantive issues, the daily conduct of the president of the United States makes that of a toddler appear mature by comparison. (I’m a parent of a five-year-old. I know these things.) It is still shocking, but far from surprising, that an American president taking to Twitter to call the ambassador of a US ally a “pompous fool” will pass from the news cycle within days.

Politics in the UK are hardly better. When the UK voted to leave the European Union in 2016, it was as if the country had hit a national self-destruct button. Ever since, the fuse has been burning and every attempt made to mitigate the damage or to change course so far has been as useless as that person waiting for an elevator who keeps hitting the call button but knows it won’t do anything. A country that was a global empire not too long ago and remains one of the top 10 economies in the world now looks – save a massive course correction – to be on the path to global irrelevance.

This is in part because radical and reckless rightwing incompetents are taking over the UK government too. When asked about whether he would keep Darroch in Washington, British member of parliament and presumed next prime minister Boris Johnson threw Darroch under the bus. In doing so, Johnson made clear that his priority was not his nation, but rather his own interests of being prime minister and having a good relationship with Trump. After that, Darroch knew it was time to go. As one article in this paper put it, Darroch was “effectively sacked by Johnson on the orders of Trump”. Speculation in Washington now swirls about whether Johnson would appoint arch-Brexiteer – and Trump favorite – Nigel Farage as UK ambassador.

The disastrous effects of both countries’ domestic politics aside, the Darroch incident is a vivid illustration of how Trump’s twitter tirades cause real harm to the US. Trump’s visits to the UK have been delayed because of massive protests. His insults of the UK – culminating in the Darroch affair – have now made it politically expedient for some British politicians to stand up to the US president.

Again, no surprise. In Trump’s Washington, this is how US allies are treated. Trump’s fondness for dictators and disdain for democratic allies is well known, and the impacts on American alliances beyond the UK have been real. Trump’s policies and repeated criticism of Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, caused a German foreign minister to call for a European strategy to push back against Trump’s America. The relationship between France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, and Trump has soured and erupted into open hostility.

In fact, the only positive relationships Trump seems capable of maintaining are with autocrats and populists. All of this plays into Russia’s goals of undermining European and American democracies and Nato – and it’s no coincidence, since Russia is actively meddling in American, UK and European politics.

But neither Trump nor those in the UK like Farage and Johnson, who take a “burn it all down” approach to politics, seem to care about what’s happening to their countries or to the alliance. For the rightwing populists on both sides of the pond, the political nosedives in motion in each country are bringing the rightwing populist movements in the US and the UK closer together.

The US-UK special relationship may very well be entering a new, especially dangerous, phase.

  • Michael H Fuchs is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs