In Washington DC, American diplomats are crossing their fingers for a Boris Johnson victory

The same things that were once said about Donald Trump are now being whispered about Jeremy Corbyn

Tom Rogan
Washington DC
Monday 04 November 2019 22:04 GMT
Donald Trump says he wants his ‘friends’ Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage to unite

President Trump isn't the only senior US official supporting Boris Johnson's re-election. Not by a long shot.

While Trump lauds Johnson for his Brexit stance and his presumption that they have a shared personal friendship, most US officials — Democrat and Republican alike — support Johnson in spite of his pro-Brexit agenda.

The simple reason why? Fear of Jeremy Corbyn. Specifically, fear of what a Corbyn government would mean for the special relationship.

Yes, there are outliers here. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, the respective leaders of the new wave and old wave Democratic socialist left, are openly supportive of Corbyn. They see his promise of restored statist economics as an example to emulate. But they are the American outliers on Boris versus Jeremy.

The rest of the US political establishment, especially in the national security arena, is firmly with the former. They are with Johnson, even though the majority believe America and Britain would be better off with the latter's remaining in the European Union.

Let's start with Trump.

The president's dislike for Corbyn, as openly offered in a radio interview with Nigel Farage last week, takes root in the Labour leader's unequivocal disdain for Trump. But Trump is also aware of Corbyn's left-wing politics. Keen to reach a US-UK trade deal and to deepen the Atlanticist relationship outside of the European Union, Trump recognizes Corbyn's countermanding foreign policy agenda. On the flip side, Trump also admires Johnson's dismissive attitude towards the European Union, an organization he regards as having played previous presidents for fools.

Yet as I say, the anti-Corbyn American consensus goes beyond Trump.

Corbyn's attitude towards the post-Second World War US-led international order is the key concern here. While Corbyn's supporters celebrate his anti-war, anti-American hegemony activist consistency, the US security establishment sees him as a politician determined to undermine American hegemony. He’d probably agree.

Corbyn's overt discomfort for the NATO mutual defense charter, as emphasized in a September 2017 CNN interview, is just one example. That Russian sympathy is particularly problematic for Washington. After all, in the aftermath of the 2016 Russian attacks on the US election, Democrats have joined the Republican foreign policy consensus — at least in the Senate — that Vladimir Putin is an enemy who must be constrained.

They thus see Corbyn's hesitation in face of Putin, further emphasized in his response to the Russian GRU nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal, as reflective of Corbyn's threat to the special relationship.

True, Trump is also unconvinced that NATO has continuing strategic utility. The difference between him and Corbyn, however, is that for all his skepticism of military alliances, Trump is reflexively pro-British.

In a January 2018 meeting with Theresa May, Trump pledged to use US military force to defend Britain in an event of an attack on its territory or people. And although he questioned the intelligence reporting at first, the president quickly moved to support the expulsion of Russian intelligence officers following the Skripal attack. Cooperation between the CIA and MI6, and the NSA and GCHQ, also continues at quite extraordinary levels. This includes collaboration on the most sensitive intelligence operations.

Washington's Corbyn worries reach further. Corbyn's pro-China stance and his sustained anti-nuclear weapons advocacy stand out here. His purported sympathy for Iran additionally leads US officials to worry whether a government led by him could be trusted with the most highly guarded US intelligence on Middle Eastern issues. Corbyn's decision to surround himself with officials such as Andrew Murray and Seumas Milne, who have spent much of their careers opposing US foreign policy, hasn’t got unnoticed either.

On China, increasingly regarded in Washington as a new Cold War adversary, a Corbyn premiership is seen as Beijing's access route into the back door of the Five Eyes intelligence relationship — a way for China to fundamentally undercut the fabric of the US-led international order.

Finally, Corbyn's reluctance to take on the moderate Labour stance about sustained nuclear deterrence is seen as a key threat to the NATO nuclear triad (America, Britain, and France).

British civil servants in Washington are well aware of these concerns. In turn, they are now telling their US government counterparts the same thing that American officials told them following Trump's election. Namely, a variation on the theme "Don't worry, keep calm and all will carry on OK. The special relationship reaches beyond one leader.”

Such words aim to strike a necessary balance between the civil service responsibility to serve each elected government and simultaneously sustain the special relationship. Still, Washington is very worried.

And so, for all their doubts over Brexit, the American foreign policy consensus will have its fingers crossed for a Johnson victory on December 12th.

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