It turns out that President Obama was right after all. Great Britain is indeed “at the back of the queue” when it comes to negotiating a free trade deal with the United States.
On the way to her first discussion as prime minister with the current POTUS, Joe Biden, Liz Truss took a potential rebuff off the table by conceding that there is no prospect “in the short or medium term” of meaningful talks beginning, let alone concluding successfully.
Biden has spelt out that a trade deal is not a priority for his first term in the White House, which does not end until January 2025.
After that such deals would normally take years to be endorsed by Congress, where neither Republicans nor Democrats have displayed any interest in putting the UK on a fast track.
Many members of Congress have joined Joe “I’m Irish” Biden in stressing that the UK can forget it if the British government endangers the Belfast Agreement over Northern Ireland.
The cold splash of reality over trade relations will not have surprised British diplomats or politicians who have long recognised that, for all the talk of “the special relationship”, the UK’s relationship with the US is fundamentally transactional.
Britain’s role as a ‘junior partner’
The two countries share many common interests and work together well when they coincide. When they do not, the Americans do not bother about “the Brits”.
Biden did not consult with London about the withdrawal from Afghanistan, just as Reagan didn’t ask Mrs Thatcher about his offer to eliminate all nuclear weapons.
As the “junior partner”, in David Cameron’s words, the UK is the needy one in this relationship, and inclined to cut the US some slack or to curry favour.
Being the supplicant can grate on British prime ministers. Boris Johnson called the phrase “special relationship” “needy and weak”.
Biden and Trust avoided using it in New York. When reporters suggested that the British may find it demeaning, a White House official joked “demeaning to who?… We’ll shut it down until we can figure out what’s going on. I’m just kidding.”
There are still enduring ties that bind
Britain and America have become brothers in arms many times in the past hundred years including in two World Wars, Korea, Kuwait, Kosovo, Afghanistan. They are already committing to be so again.
Russia, actively in Ukraine, and, China, potentially, are both threatening the West’s security.
Truss’s encounter with Biden was stilted in front of the cameras. The two leaders shared their concerns, however, about the dangerous turns in world events. When it comes to defence and security their special relationship is set to be close.
At their meeting in New York the president told the prime minister what she wanted to hear: “I look forward to working with you. You’re our closest ally in the world, and there’s a lot we can do – continue to do together.”
Truss responded in concrete terms which will have gratified the US: “That is why we are stepping up in terms of our defence spending. We’re going to be moving to 3% of GDP on defence spending. And that’s why we want to work more closely with the United States, especially on energy security, on our economic security, but also in reaching out to fellow democracies around the world…”
Biden described the US and the UK as “the leaders in NATO” in support of Ukraine.
Truss has made backing President Zelenskyy and his country one of the three top priorities of her premiership. As the Russian invasion falters, the cornered Russian President Vladimir Putin has lashed out threatening the use of nuclear weapons against NATO countries who he claims, falsely, are attacking Russia.
There could yet be a much higher cost for the Western allies in terms of both blood and treasure.
Truss also urged Biden to take a firm line against China. This was somewhat unnecessary since he recently became the first US president to state explicitly that the US would come to the aid of Taiwan militarily if China attempts to invade it.
It is inevitable that the UK would be drawn into any such conflict.
Last year Boris Johnson’s government, with Truss as a senior member, signed the AUKUS security pact with Australia and the US. Deeper intelligence collaboration is designed to deter Chinese expansionism.
In spite of tensions closer to home, the UK deployed its flagship aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth II and other naval assets to the South China Sea in 2021. Meanwhile to the fury of France, AUKUS also took over a contract to supply Australia with nuclear submarines.
This week @POTUS tweeted: “Folks, gas prices are now back to the levels they were in early March. That means nearly all of the increases since the beginning of Russia’s war in Ukraine have been wiped out.”
The US economy has not been hit as hard as European countries by the war. The US was not dependent on hydro carbon imports from Russia. It is largely self-sufficient in energy and is a gas exporter.
Truss is hoping that the US will step up its supplies of liquified national gas to the UK. The idea has already led to a domestic backlash in the US.
“We appreciate that the Biden administration has been working with European allies to expand fuel exports to Europe,” governors from states in the north east wrote to the energy secretary. “A similar effort should be made for New England.”
Economies entwined but also in competition
Obama’s controversial warning about trade deals in the run up to the British referendum underlined the US view that Brexit was a mistake.
Successive US administrations valued the UK as their bridge into the European Union. Now the UK is in competition with European member states for business, hence the new cabinet’s intention of removing the cap on bankers’ bonuses, originally imposed by the EU.
Ministers have stated that they hope the move will encourage American banks to come or to stay in the UK. Thousands of financial jobs have been lost to Paris, where the French government has attempted to create a more attractive tax regime.
Although it will mean that some at the top will get even more money, it is claimed that lifting the cap will keep the banks’ overall wage bills down because they will no longer have to pay large-fixed salaries to match potential earnings in the US.
National interests not always the same
It is a brave, perhaps foolhardy, gesture when so many in Britain are feeling the squeeze but shows the Truss government’s eagerness for economic growth and continued close relations with Wall Street.
Ironically, as has been widely noted, encouraging the rich to get richer during a cost of living crisis does not accord with President Biden’s economic philosophy at home. Coincidentally with his meeting with Truss, he tweeted: “I am sick and tired of trickle-down economics. It has never worked. We’re building an economy from the bottom up and middle out.”
The US and UK economies are closely entwined but they are also in competition.
We speak the same language and share historical roots but our national interests are not always the same. Truss’s “special relationship” with the president is on course to be no better and no worse than many of her predecessors.
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