On December 31, 1999, as television networks spanned the globe to cover the celebrations ringing in the new millennium, ABC’s Peter Jennings reflected on Britain’s recent history. “In 1900, when Queen Victoria was on the throne, she presided over the largest empire in history,” Jennings said, as fireworks boomed over the Thames. “Four hundred million people, one-fifth the earth’s surface. And now as we come to the end of this century, for all this fantastic show…Britain’s possessions have dwindled to about 15 dependent territories. Hong Kong went back to the Chinese, but the Falkland Islands are still British.”
Ever since the Suez Crisis in 1956, Britain has struggled to establish a place in the world that fits its melancholic pretensions to its size and budget. Nostalgic about its former glory, anxious about its diminished state, and forgetful about its former crimes, Britain lives on its reputation with the same mixture of frugality and ostentatiousness that an elderly aristocrat might live on his trust fund—thriftily yet pompously, with a great sense of entitlement and precious little self-awareness.
Central to this delusional patriotic sensibility has been Britain’s relationship with the United States. Fancying ourselves as the lone reliable conduit between Europe and America, British governments of either party long understood themselves as bilingual and transatlantic. Speaking the language both of American unilateral military power and pan-European ideals of social democracy and pooled sovereignty, we imagined our postcolonial role as the diplomatic bridge across the Atlantic.
This in no small part explains the urgency with which British Prime Minister Theresa May pushed herself to the front of the queue to be the first foreign leader to meet Donald Trump after his inauguration. Most European dignitaries not only kept their distance but celebrated it: German Chancellor Angela Merkel used her first phone call to explain the Geneva Conventions to Trump after the unveiling of his refugee and Muslim travel ban. The Dutch government announced an international fund to finance access to birth control and abortion in developing countries to help compensate for the shortfall caused by Trump’s recent executive order reinstating the global gag rule, which blocks US funding to NGOs that provide abortion care or referrals. And Sweden’s deputy prime minister appeared to troll Trump—whose image signing that order in a room full of men looking on went viral—with a photograph of herself signing a climate bill surrounded only by female colleagues. Meanwhile, May—the United Kingdom’s second female prime minister—flew to Washington so that she could be photographed, all rictus smiles and fawning banter, walking hand in hand with the grabber in chief.