Say what you like about America, but there is no denying that it has been one of the biggest world powers in recent history. From its cultural influences and economic power to military might and shining example of democracy in action, the United States of America has made a big impact on the history of the world as a whole, sometimes for good and sometimes for worst. Since its creation, America has benefitted from its diplomatic strength as much as anything and today, it boasts hundreds of treaties with other countries ranging from trade deals, partnerships and alliances.
Today, Donald Trump has strained old alliances and mutually beneficial deals to their limits. His irresponsible and narrow view of the world, combined with the seductive ‘America First’ policy, has led many to fear that America is making a retreat from the world stage. Such a retreat is fraught with uncertainty at best and dangerous at worst. Russia flexes its muscles and seeks to prove its might under Vladimir Putin while China hopes to replace America’s dominance and usher in a ‘Chinese Century’. Europe faces internal divisions as neo-Nazis and far-right parties, buoyed by Brexit and Trump, seeks to dismantle liberal democratic institutions that withstood Cold War pressures and ensured economic prosperity for over forty years.
America’s military and economic might is a key reason why alliances are made with it, but it can be a double-edged sword. Britain, as America’s oldest ally, realized soon after WWII that it no longer had the international clout it once had and resolutely to stand by America. This has brought some unwelcome problems such as the invasion of Grenada and recently, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The former was highly embarrassing for the British government and reportedly annoyed the Queen and the latter dogged Tony Blair’s later years as Prime Minister and the left-wing Labour Party he led for over a decade.
For the most part, the ‘special relationship depends on the personality of the leaders. Regean and Thatcher had a good relationship while David Cameron and Barack Obama were considered best of friends. For the most part, Presidents and Prime Ministers enjoy a fairly good relationship. Of course, this is not always the case. Margaret Thatcher and George Bush had a tense relationship while Bill Clinton had to wait until Tony Blair became Prime Minister to de-thaw a previously frosty relationship under Blair’s predecessor, John Major.
With Donald Trump in power, the relationship can be tested. Never in its history has it been so strained. Even the Skybolt crisis, a crisis played out secretly between JFK and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in 1962 and placed the relationship serve strain, pales in comparison to Donald Trump.
Part of the strain is Trump himself. His ‘America First’ policy means that any trade deal Britain wants after leaving the European Union is going to be hard-fought. A close alliance with Trump is controversial, not least because London and its mayor have been a previous punching bag for Trump’s Twitter attacks. He is also considered to be a result of the same disturbing strain of right-wing nationalism that brought about Brexit and which mirrors historical dictators.
Despite the relationship seemingly one-sided, slated more in America’s favor than Britain’s, it can often be an equal partnership and a fruitful one. In exchange of close ties, Britain provides an opening for America to talk to its European cousins. It is also possible, as is the case of the Iran nuclear deal, for Britain to defy its ally and side with its closest neighbors such as France and Germany. Even with Brexit straining ties, Britain is still closer to Europe than America in some ways.
Trump should be wary of antagonizing America’s friends, but the man has shown no interest in seeing other nations as anything other than competitors or rivals. The longer he stays, the more damage he does to his allies and the more help he provides for America’s enemies, although that depends on whether Russia is Trump’s friend or not. Europe is a key partner in America’s global efforts, just as Japan and South Korea are vital to keeping North Korea in check. Rubbing them up the wrong way or pulling out of agreements is no way to keep friends on your side.
The person I feel sorry for is Trump’s successor. Whoever follows Trump will have a hard time piecing America’s overseas reputation together. They will have to prove that America can be trusted, that they take international threats seriously and that their allies can rely on them. Under Trump, the assumption that the USA is on the side of the righteous has been fatally undermined and the post-WWII agreements are in danger of breaking down.
Trump revels in conflict. He loves pitting friends and foes against each other. He enjoys the feeling of power of pretending to be the world’s savior. Meanwhile, in Europe, many shake their head and despair. They see economic uncertainty fuelled by the threat of conflicts and brought about by the same terrible ideas that destroyed Europe seventy years ago. They see the world’s most powerful man, a man with a nuclear arsenal and the world’s most advanced military at his fingerprints and sense that they can no longer control the man in the White House.
Some fear that Trump isn’t America’s leader, but Russia’s vassal. His presidency serves only to weaken alliances that stand in Russia’s way and creates discord amongst friends. Much like Soviet Russia in the Cold War, there is much benefit for Putin to divide public and political opinion within the United States and Europe. Even if he wasn’t directly involved, he’s only too happy to reap the storm. China and its own regime of strongmen are also happy to reap the benefits of a confused and inexperienced administration in Washington.
Having America as an ally is a double-edged sword. Now, those of us beyond America’s shores, those of us who see America as a vital friend, are starting to feel the sharper edge of the blade. With friends like Trump, who needs Putin?