Economy

Inside Liz Truss’s not so special relationship with the US

When the UK’s newly appointed foreign secretary, Liz Truss, met her US counterpart Antony Blinken for the first time last September, the conversation was far from diplomatic.

According to people briefed on the discussion, Truss questioned the special relationship between the two countries — a concept that has underpinned the US-UK alliance since the phrase was popularised by Britain’s wartime prime minister Winston Churchill in the 1940s. 

Truss said she had seen few tangible examples to support the idea that the relationship was particularly unique, one of the people said, citing Britain’s better trade relations with Canada, Japan and Mexico, as well as a dispute over steel tariffs with the US. 

“Her attitude was ‘what have you done for me lately?” the person said.

That conversation was emblematic of a style described as blunt, binary and assertive by US officials and analysts, some of whom said Truss was quick to take maximalist positions without thinking of the consequences.

With Truss on course to become the next UK prime minister on September 5 following a bruising Tory party leadership election, the US foreign policy establishment is asking whether she will bring her bombast from the Foreign Office to Downing Street.

“Truss is going to be a lot more assertive in standing up to the Biden administration than Boris Johnson,” said Nile Gardiner of the rightwing Heritage Foundation think-tank in Washington.

On the Ukraine war, which has dominated Truss’s period as foreign secretary, the US and UK have presented a united front and co-ordinated closely to declassify intelligence before and after Vladimir Putin’s invasion.

But beneath the veneer of solidarity, Truss has at times irked her American counterparts, according to people briefed on their thinking.

In a speech in April she called for the countries to work together on a Marshall Plan for Ukraine, an echo of the US programme that funded the reconstruction of Western Europe after World War Two. The speech “raised eyebrows” in the Biden administration, according to a US official, given that Britain has given billions less in economic and lethal aid to Kyiv than Washington has.

It was but one instance of an approach that another senior administration official described as “very black and white”, where her rhetoric has frequently outstripped British commitments and American policy.

In March, Truss said the US and UK must “work together to ensure that Putin loses in Ukraine”, while in July she said the Russian president needed to “suffer a strategic defeat”.

Meanwhile, the US has recently backed away from talk of outright defeat of Russia. And after Joe Biden used a speech at Warsaw in March to declare that Putin could not remain in power, his aides were forced to make clear the US was not advocating for regime change.

Truss and her team, meanwhile, have at times been frustrated by Washington’s unwillingness to take a harder line on Russia, a person familiar with the matter said.

“As the administration is trying to find ways to navigate through increasingly tense situations, her clarity can work against some of their interests,” said Heather Conley, president of the German Marshall Fund of the US.

Conley added that Truss appeared less concerned than the US about “provoking a potential escalation” and had not engaged in the same “sort of hedging” as American diplomats.

Ronald Reagan was particularly close to Margaret Thatcher, who described him as ‘the second most important man’ in her life after her husband © M Sprague/AFP/Getty Images

Inside Liz Truss’s not so special relationship with the US - branches of economics - Economy - Public News Time
Tony Blair’s closeness to the US during George W Bush’s presidency and his support of the Iraq war led to accusations that he was Bush’s poodle © Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images

However, some US officials characterised the tensions as the kinds of squabbles that siblings often have and said they would not fundamentally alter Anglo-American ties.

The US state department declined to comment. The White House and Truss’s leadership team did not respond to a request for comment.

The special relationship has ebbed and flowed in recent decades. Ronald Regan was particularly close to Margaret Thatcher, who described him as “the second most important man” in her life after her husband. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair revelled in their status as two young leaders ushering in a new brand of centrist progressive politics on either side of the Atlantic.

But Blair’s decision to stay close to the US during George W Bush’s presidency and to support the invasion of Iraq resulted in accusations that he was Bush’s poodle.

Under Barack Obama, ties were at times frosty. The British press had a field day when the US president gifted Gordon Brown a box set of DVDs in return for a pen holder carved from the timbers of an anti-slave ship. The UK tabloids also seized on Obama’s decision to remove the bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office.

As foreign secretary and before that trade secretary, Truss has cultivated ties in the Biden administration and on Capitol Hill and is better known across the Atlantic than her opponent in the conservative leadership race, Rishi Sunak.

She met Biden alongside Johnson last September at the White House, an encounter that aides described as “warm”. Truss and Biden are also likely to hold a meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, which takes place shortly after Truss is expected to become UK prime minister.

Sources close to the foreign secretary suggest that Truss is unlikely to take the UK in a radically different foreign policy direction to her predecessor, continuing to focus on Ukraine and taking a hawkish approach to countering the influence of China.

Truss sees the US as one of the UK’s most important partnerships from an economic and security perspective and will prioritise the relationship during her premiership, an ally of the foreign secretary said.

Truss’s efforts to cast herself as an heir to Thatcher has won her many supporters in Republican foreign policy circles, who appreciate her embrace of free trade and conservative bona fides.

“Truss is widely admired by conservatives in DC,” said Gardiner, who has hosted Truss at the Heritage Foundation. “She is viewed as a radical Thatcherite politician who is not afraid to shake things up.” 

But while she is not short of fans on the right, her stance on Brexit and Northern Ireland has caused friction with Democrats, and has the potential to further complicate US-UK relations.

Nancy Pelosi, the US speaker of the House, said after a phone call with Truss this summer that she was “deeply concerned” by the UK government’s intention to discard the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol.

Truss said earlier this month she will not bow to the pressure. “I took on responsibility for negotiating the Northern Ireland protocol . . . and I will be very clear with people like Nancy Pelosi exactly what I think about this and exactly what we need to do,” she said.

Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at the Eurasia Group, said that Truss’s uncompromising stance on the protocol “immediately puts [her] in direct confrontation with the EU”, adding: “As long as this relationship with Europe festers, you’re not going to get the UK-US relationship working at its full potential.”

Additional reporting by Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe in London

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