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16 September 2022

“Special, but not exclusive”: will US/UK relations be damaged by Liz Truss?

Joe Biden has a new British PM to deal with, but the same Northern Ireland protocol problem.

By Emily Tamkin

On 6 September, Liz Truss, Britain’s new prime minister, spoke to US president Joe Biden. Both the White House and 10 Downing Street released transcripts of the call. Shortly thereafter, readers spotted a discrepancy between the two texts.

In the British version, the Prime Minister and the president “agreed on the importance of protecting the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement”. But the American one reads that, “They also discussed their shared commitment to protecting the gains of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and the importance of reaching a negotiated agreement with the European Union on the Northern Ireland protocol.”

Then, on 7 September, the second day of Truss’s tenure as prime minister, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, when asked about a potential US-UK trade deal, said that “Th,ere’s no formal linkage on trade talks between the US and the UK and the Northern Ireland protocol…but efforts to undo the Northern Ireland protocol would not create a conducive environment, and that’s basically where we are in the dialogue.”

The remarks captured, if unintentionally, the state of the US-UK relationship: strong, and necessary for both parties, but with a potentially major irritant threatening to disrupt it.

***

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There was speculation that Biden’s presidency would jeopardise the US-UK relationship. Much was made of his Irish heritage and whether that would sour his feelings towards Britain. Personal relations with Boris Johnson were already strained after Johnson’s racist comments in 2016 about former US president Barack Obama, when he suggested that Obama’s opposition to Brexit was because of his “part-Kenyan” heritage.

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The US-UK relationship may not be “special”, but it is robust, and US foreign policy benefits from a “Global Britain” that engages with the world. Under Truss, the relationship has potential to strengthen “because of the geopolitical context”, said Heather Conley, president of the German Marshall Fund. That’s true with respect to Ukraine, but also with respect to China and the Indo Pacific (Conley noted the appointment of Tom Tugendhat, an advocate of “tilting” UK strategic interests towards the Indo Pacific, as minister of state).

In 2021, while foreign secretary, Truss said that Britain’s relationship with the US was “special, but not exclusive”. That sentiment, Conley argued, shouldn’t be particularly concerning to Washington, where it will be seen as a sign of Truss’s “pragmatism”. “It’s not a quid pro quo. We have so much to do. How can we work together to strengthen our core alliance in a complex world?”

But Truss’s pick for Northern Ireland secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, a hardline Brexiteer, has caused some concern in the Beltway.

***

The Northern Ireland Protocol is the deal between the UK and the EU that essentially allowed for both Brexit and the preservation of the Good Friday Agreement. In May, when she was foreign secretary, Truss announced that parts of the protocol would be rewritten (Prime Minister Johnson quickly clarified that a decision to do so had not been made).

Democrats, and US politicians more generally, take pride in the Good Friday Agreement, which was one of the signature foreign policy accomplishments of the Clinton administration and arguably of the United States in the post-Cold War period. Those who highlight Biden’s Irish heritage overlook that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has also repeatedly reiterated how important she considers the Northern Ireland Protocol to be. Even former president Donald Trump’s special envoy to Northern Ireland, Mick Mulvaney, clearly communicated that the United States would “protect and defend” the Good Friday Agreement.

It is not only that the agreement is considered a major American diplomatic achievement, but also that the United States does not want such a serious rupture, and certainly not at this time, between the United Kingdom and the European Union. The US is clear that, should Truss and her team play to hard-line domestic politics and pursue policy that threatens the Good Friday Agreement, a US-UK trade deal is unlikely.  

“Congress plays a very important role, and Congress will be watching carefully how the UK chooses to handle the Northern Ireland issue vis a vis the EU,” a former State Department official told me.

A confrontational approach to Europe could also create a broader problem for the UK: the official noted that, for the Biden administration, the “US-EU relationship has taken on ever greater importance”, and warned, “The UK may find itself on the wrong end of that triangle if it chooses a path of no compromise on Brexit implementation.”

The US position on the Northern Ireland Protocol has not changed nor the essential problem, only the identity of the British prime minister has. Truss, said Conley, could either “exacerbate” or “manage” the issue. “In some ways,” she said, “this is in her hands.”

[see also: A Liz Truss government means the return of the radical right]