As Trump meets May, a look at the US/UK ‘special relationship’ through the decades

January 27, 2017 GMT
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President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair shake hands following their press conference at Camp David Friday, Feb. 23, 2001, in Thurmont, Md. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer/File)
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President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair shake hands following their press conference at Camp David Friday, Feb. 23, 2001, in Thurmont, Md. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer/File)

British Prime Minister Theresa May became the first foreign leader to meet President Donald Trump on Friday, a clear signal that she hopes to breathe new life into the so-called “special relationship” between the two countries.

May will be hoping that Britain’s role as a close ally of the U.S. will help her to nudge the new U.S. president toward a political mainstream that has largely existed in the West since World War II, notably on issues such as free trade and the importance of the NATO military alliance

Since World War II, the two countries have generally been close. The two have forged close economic and cultural ties and have often acted together militarily, most recently _ and controversially _ in the U.S.-led war in Iraq in 2003. That decision has tarnished both the legacies of then-President George W. Bush and then-British prime minister Tony Blair.

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May harked back to that decision in a speech in Philadelphia on the eve of her meeting with Trump when she said “the days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over.”

Matters of war and peace have been central in the relationship between the two countries, ever since President Woodrow Wilson came to Europe in the aftermath of World War I to create the “League of Nations.”

Through to World War II, relations weren’t that close, not least because the U.S. failed to join the League of Nations, and the U.S. turned inward following he Wall Street crash of 1929.

The relationship became particularly close during World War II between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Thereafter, it was a central linchpin of the Western alliance. Sometimes, the relationship has been warm and seemingly equal, not least in the 1980s when President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher struck a close bond that was based on shared economic values and similar views over the Soviet Union.

It was also particularly close in the early 1960s when the patrician British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan took the youthful new U.S. President John F. Kennedy under his wings.

Other times, the relationship hasn’t been so close, not least when British Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused in the 1960s to join the U.S. in the Vietnam war or in the aftermath of the Iraq war of 2003.

May will no doubt be mindful of history during her meeting. The extent of the “special relationship” is not set in stone.