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A Look At Trump's Impact On The 'Special Relationship' Between The U.S. And U.K.


When President Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May spoke in London today, both of them referred to what they called the special relationship between their two countries.


PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: I've always talked openly with you, Donald, when we have taken a different approach. And you've done the same with me. I've always believed that cooperation and compromise are the basis of strong alliances, and nowhere is this more true than in this special relationship.

SHAPIRO: President Trump has upended many international relationships during his two years in office. And to look at the impact he has had on this special relationship between the U.S. and the U.K., Lewis Lukens joins us. He is a career diplomat who served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in London from 2016 until earlier this year. He joins us now from outside Buckingham Palace.


LEWIS LUKENS: Thank you. It's great to be here.

SHAPIRO: In practical terms, what does that phrase special relationship mean to you?

LUKENS: Well, it is a real thing. I mean, people sometimes question the notion of it, but there is a long and enduring tradition of a very close relationship on all levels between our countries. Now, if you read between the lines of what Theresa May said in her press conference, she hinted at disagreements - different approaches to some of the global issues that we face right now. So the relationship is not always easy, but I would argue it is always special.

SHAPIRO: What's your sense of the administration's approach to the U.S.-U.K. relationship? I mean, today President Trump, in this press conference, called it a very big and important alliance. Do you think he really feels that way?

LUKENS: I think he does. I think he, mostly for sentimental reasons, is very fond of this relationship and the royal family. And I think he loved the events yesterday and the pomp and circumstance. I think a lot of the sort of hard work that goes on on a daily basis to keep this relationship as strong as it is really happens at - not at the presidential and prime minister level but at the bureaucratic and civil service and foreign service level. And the president, from what I can tell, is more interested in the big picture of the relationship and not so much in the details. But it's the details that actually keep it going on a daily basis.

SHAPIRO: Without compromising privacy, can you give me a specific example of a way in which a detail of that special relationship changed as a result of something that the president or secretary of state or national security adviser said publicly?

LUKENS: Well, again, you know, the president has previously attacked the prime minister on Twitter, attacking the mayor of London. He's attacked the National Health Service, which is an institution that the British people hold very dear to their hearts. All of those things changed a little bit the dynamic of the relationship. And as a diplomat, you struggle to explain to the British people that we are equal partners in this relationship when the president of the United States seems to take pleasure in attacking the institutions and the leaders here.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell me of a specific time that you experienced that?

LUKENS: Yeah. I mean, there's sort of multiple examples of awkward conversations. And a lot of this happens from London to Washington and also from folks in the government here with the embassy sort of saying, why was that said? Why was that done? I can't really get into specifics, but it's sort of this unhelpful and unnecessary stressor in the relationship, which accomplishes so much on a daily basis. And it would be a little bit easier if we didn't have to deal with that.

SHAPIRO: So there's language, and there's also policy. And on policy, the U.S. and the U.K. are far apart on climate change, on the Iran nuclear deal, on things like international alliances and trade agreements. Is it fair to say that the relationship between these two countries has already changed from where it was under other American administrations?

LUKENS: Well, it definitely has changed. It's changed since the last administration. Now, whether that change is irreversible, you know, one can argue that. But, again, the prime minister hinted in her press conference about the different approaches on things like climate change and Iran and the Middle East. And I think as, probably, the closest friends and partners in the world, we're able to speak frankly with each other and have frank discussions about policy differences. But I think we have a higher level of policy differences now than we've seen for a very long time in this special relationship.

SHAPIRO: That's Lewis Lukens. He was the second in command at the U.S. Embassy in London. He's now head of Caspian Strategies.

Thank you for joining us today.

LUKENS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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