First of all, let me say as an American, “Congratulations”. Congratulations on having the courage to vote for Brexit. And congratulations on finding a government that has shown it has the courage necessary not to give up on Brexit before the job has even begun, much less finished. Remain’s best argument was always fear of the unknown, and the best way to confront that argument was not to be afraid of change. Brexit isn’t about limiting losses. It’s about creating new opportunities.
One of those opportunities, of course, is closer relations with the United States. I don’t say that in a spirit of national selfishness. Britain also has the chance to reconnect with Australia and New Zealand, to build on burgeoning ties with Japan, and to create a relationship of equals with India that was impossible in either the age of Empire or the age of the EU. I know all that, and I welcome it. But Brexit, and the departure of Barack Obama, allow me to hope that we might be entering an era of better and deeper Anglo-American relations, and I certainly welcome that too.
I’ve always said that Anglo-American relations are too deep, and too important, to rest on the personalities or the personal relations of our leaders. We co-operate in so many ways – trade, finance, investment, education, tourism, and culture – and much of this has little if anything to do with who sits in the White House or Number 10. In Churchill’s metaphor, a very broad river flows between us, and while politics do stir its surface, they do not often reach its depths. And that is a good thing, because for a democracy, foreign policy in its truest sense is about creating the freedom for its citizens to co-operate voluntarily. Whatever the deficiencies of various administrations, Britons and Americans have done an extraordinary job of seizing those freedoms to work with each other.
But politics do matter, and the political optics of the past eight years have not been good. This is not the time to rehearse President Obama’s lack of interest – to put it politely – in Britain, but it was both clear and of a piece with his broader disinterest in the US’s closest allies. The fact that he remained popular in Britain will always be a mystery to me, but there is a skein of British politics – from Gladstone to Blair – than hankers after politicians who style themselves as lay preachers, and Obama was such a politician. Plus, of course, you have to know someone to truly dislike them, as witnessed by the respect that the American public still entertains for Tony Blair.
But we have now traded our lay preacher for a man with an entirely different personal style, one who is personally much better disposed to Britain. As Michael Gove’s interview with President-Elect Trump makes clear, there is tremendous support in the new White House – and in the US political system as a whole – for a US-UK free trade area. If Britain hadn’t been in the EU, we would have had such an area decades ago.
Negotiations with Britain raise none of the concerns that have made big multilateral deals so controversial in the US (and, I should add, in Britain and the EU). Britain isn’t a low wage country. It doesn’t cheat. Our trade is large, and almost perfectly balanced. Over a million Americans already work for British firms, and over a million Britons already work for American firms. We are each incredibly open to investment by the other (as illustrated by Mr Trump’s golf courses, among much else). And, frankly, there are quite a few Americans who were appalled by President Obama’s “back of the queue” jab, and who would like nothing more than to give him, and the EU, one in the eye by doing a deal with Britain. At least five separate bills or resolutions to that effect have already been introduced in Congress.
What will that deal look like? Well, my hope is that, whatever it looks like, it looks like it fast. Better a decent deal that captures some benefits quickly than a supposedly perfect deal that takes a decade to negotiate. We should aim, above all, for an agreement that both of us can sign the day after you formally exit the EU: everything should be subordinated to that goal. We will probably want – or need – to go a bit beyond zero tariffs and quotas, which should be our starting point, and include, for example, a statement pledging our shared support for a continued free and open investment climate in both nations. But we are better off being done than perfect.
We need, though, to look beyond trade. There is, of course, the realm of defence. It’s not yet been much noticed in Britain, but our most recent National Defense Authorization Act – our annual legislative vehicle for the Pentagon – contains a provision (Sec. 881, if you want to follow up) defining Britain (and Australia) as part of the US National Technology and Industrial Base. In other words, Britain and Australia are now, for purposes of defence procurement, much closer to being inside the US wire than ever before. It will take a while, and a lot more work, to make that provision into an effective reality. But we have the chance now to deepen our co-operation in the defence industries – and thus ultimately on the battlefield. We need to seize that chance.
There is a lot in our relationship that works well, and here, our goal is mostly simple: don’t mess it up. As Churchill once put it, regarding an episode of Anglo-American co-operation in the Second World War, when you have got a thing where you want it, it is a good thing to keep it where it is. But even in some areas that do work well, we might be able to do better. One area that might benefit from even closer collaboration is education – and, specifically, university-level education. Between us, we have the lion’s share of the world’s great universities, even though many of yours are now panicking – entirely unnecessarily, I believe – about the impact of Brexit. But again, Brexit is about opportunities.
What Britain values about foreign students is – frankly – the money they pay in. Americans are both eager to study in Britain and inured to paying high tuition bills so, apart from their academic merits, they have a lot to contribute. Nor are they likely to overstay their visas: being unemployed or living on the margins in a high-cost place like Britain won’t be appealing to many Americans. British students pay much lower (though rising) tuition bills, and receive – effectively – a subsidy from the government, which could be transferred if they studied abroad, and they’re equally unlikely to overstay their visas. If we each agree to suitable and liberal visa issuance policies, and limit the scheme to properly accredited institutions – no dodgy diplomas – we have the basis for an expanded degree-abroad programme that would be reciprocal, and good for both of us. And I’m sure I wouldn’t object if you did the same thing with Australia.
Let’s be honest about this: Donald Trump starts at no better than scratch in the British popularity sweepstakes, and Theresa May is mostly unknown in the United States. Yet Trump is clearly more interested in Britain than his predecessor, and May’s government is chock-full of ministers who are well-known to be friendly to the US. We have just endured eight years of rhetorical riches, coupled with about two cents’ worth of actual achievements as far as our foreign policy goes, and you need to do whatever you can, as fast as you can, to make Brexit a success.
So let’s try something new: focusing on reality. Let’s get a few solid accomplishments under our belt – starting, but not ending, with that trade deal – and then see how we feel about each other, and ourselves. I’d love to go back to the era of Roosevelt and Churchill, or Reagan and Thatcher, because they all combined great rhetoric with great achievements, but that’s not happening. Yet we do have the chance – because you now have the freedom, and we appear to have the desire – to break the mould, to do things that used to be impossible, or merely unthinkable. If politics allow us to make Churchill’s river that little broader for both our benefit, and for the years that will follow our new administrations, it would be folly not to take it.
This piece originally appeared in National Review