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Trump's U.K. Visit Puts Strain On The Countries' Special Relationship


President Trump has begun a state visit to the U.K. by demonstrating his talent for seizing headlines. He's insulting London's mayor for being short after the mayor criticized him. Beneath the president's tweets, there is a real news story with real consequences. The United States and Britain have cultivated a special relationship for decades, and that relationship is now under strain. We have insights from NPR's Frank Langfitt.

PRE-RECORDED VOICE: The next station is Brookwood.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: The Brookwood American Cemetery is a 40-minute train ride from London. Gail Anderson handles tours here.

GAIL ANDERSON: We've got 468 Americans buried here from the First World War. Forty-one of them are unknowns.

LANGFITT: Most of the U.S. service members honored here died of illness, injuries suffered fighting on the continent or in the surrounding waters after U-boats sunk their ships. Anderson reads a name on a marble cross.

ANDERSON: Wayne Hart Moore, second lieutenant, RAF, British Army. He was an American within the American Army. He wanted to fly, and so he then got attached to the British RAF.

LANGFITT: Moore was among more than 2 million Americans who served in Europe during World War I.

ANDERSON: It does just say to everybody the actual strength of the relationship between the two countries; 95% of the attendance at our Memorial Day and our Veterans Day are actually British. And they will come here, and they will remember the Americans, and they feel it an honor to be part of it.

LANGFITT: Those ties were cemented fighting the Nazis in World War II when inspired Winston Churchill to coin the term the special relationship, a connection so close at times that British Prime Minister Tony Blair was able to joke in the U.S. House of Representatives about earlier wars, when the two nations battled each other.


TONY BLAIR: On our way down here, Senator Frist was kind enough to show me the fireplace where in 1814 the British had burned the Congress library. I know this is kind of late, but sorry.


LANGFITT: But there haven't been a lot of laughs in recent years.

LEW LUKENS: It has been, I think, a very challenging time in the special relationship.

LANGFITT: Lew Lukens is the former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in London. He says Brexit has consumed so much political energy that the U.K. hasn't been able to focus much on issues of shared interest. And Trump's policy choices, such as pulling out of the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, have frustrated the British. Lukens says the president's blunt style has also taken a toll.

LUKENS: He has definitely insulted and lashed out in ways that have been sort of gratuitously insulting and that haven't accomplished any foreign policy objective but have soured, I think, the sense of friendship and of the special relationship that we've always had.

LANGFITT: President Trump has publicly criticized Prime Minister Theresa May for not taking his advice on how to negotiate Britain's departure from the EU. Over the weekend, Trump further inserted himself into British politics by praising former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson as an excellent choice to replace May, who's stepping down. Lew Lukens, the retired American diplomat, says U.K. officials are placing their hopes in the American voter.

LUKENS: My sense is that British officials are trying to shrug it off and, I think, hoping for 2024 for a change in administration.

LANGFITT: But Robert Singh, a professor of politics at Birkbeck, University London, says Trump isn't the only problem in the special relationship.

ROBERT SINGH: I think it's on the rocks in many respects.

LANGFITT: Singh points out that many differences between the countries predate President Trump.

SINGH: If you look over the last 10 years, there've been a series of small but significant disputes between London and Washington over things like Guantanamo, over Iran and how strongly to push sanctions. There have been all sorts of problems over issues of extradition, over capital punishment.

LANGFITT: And many British are still angry about the decision of the United Kingdom to join the 2003 war against Iraq.

SINGH: Iraq really weakened the willingness of the British public to be there almost unconditionally to wage war with the United States.

LANGFITT: And, Singh says, if relations continue to decline, both nations will suffer. Few countries can provide the U.S. the political, diplomatic and intelligence-sharing support the U.K. has. And for the United Kingdom, there's no better partner than America to amplify British power on the world stage.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Brookwood, England. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.