The visit to London of a US national security adviser would have passed unnoticed in bygone days. The White House emissary would have made his calls at the Foreign Office and slipped into the prime minister's office to pay the US president's respects before heading home to Washington without fuss or fanfare.
John Bolton's regal procession through Whitehall this week was a measure of a new distribution of power.
Boris Johnson and Donald Trump seem to be building what some might call a special relationship. Albeit by different routes, Britain's prime minister and America's president both rode to power peddling the nationalist, anti-immigration populism that has destabilised western democracies. Neither leader can claim many friends on the European continent. Both have a careless acquaintance with facts and truth.
The idea of a special relationship with Washington, of course, is nothing new. It has been a conceit of almost every prime minister since Winston Churchill came up with the phrase during the 1930s. Britain has always been the junior partner, though it has sometimes counted itself the smarter one — serving as Greece to America's Rome as Harold Macmillan put it.
Johnson needs a great deal more from the relationship than his predecessors. The hardest of hard Brexits he proposes will blow up the European pillar of Britain's foreign policy. He is already much disliked in Berlin and in Paris. If he goes ahead with his threat to crash out of the EU on October 31, the American pillar of British policy will have to bear an awful lot of extra weight.
The US administration is as aware of this as anyone else. Those alert to the diplomatic nuances will have noticed how the choreography of Bolton's trip defined the new terms on which Washington plans to do business. His encounter with Johnson resembled more a meeting of peers than of a prime minister and presidential envoy. We are already seeing the impact of Britain's post-Brexit dependency.
Bolton presented a reminder that the Trump administration has ditched the Atlanticism that once cast the US as a cheerleader for, and guarantor of, European integration. Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet and Paul-Henri Spaak are generally counted among the EU's founding fathers. Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and John F Kennedy were also present at the creation. For these leaders, a stable, prosperous Europe, bound together in an economic community as well as in the Nato alliance, was an essential buttress of America's international leadership.
The same succession of US presidents badgered Britain to join the enterprise. The former US secretary of state, Dean Acheson, is often remembered in Britain for his wounding remark about the nation's failure to find a post-imperial role. Few recall that in his next breath Acheson congratulated Macmillan's government for its decision to apply for membership of the then European Community. To Acheson's mind, Britain, Europe and the US were all winners from the extension of the postwar rules-based, multilateral system.
Trump wants to turn this wisdom on its head. As Bolton put it: "We see a successful [Brexit] as being very much in our interests," adding for good measure that "Britain's success in exiting the EU is a statement about democratic rule . . . The fashion in the European Union [is] when the people vote the wrong way from the way the elite wants, you make the peasants vote again and again until they get it right."
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Divide and rule makes sense for a US administration that has eschewed international leadership in favour of America-first unilateralism. What most irritates Trump about the EU is that it has the economic clout to stand up to the US. How else could it defy him on the Iran nuclear deal and refuse to ban China's Huawei from next generation communications projects. Brexit is to be applauded because it weakens Brussels.
By the same logic it makes a weakened Britain a more pliant ally. Bolton is keen to sound magnanimous. Trump can scarcely wait to sign a trade deal with Johnson, he says. And to make it easier, he is ready to leave the tough stuff — open access to Britain for America's chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef and a role for US business in the National Health Service — until some time after Britain has left the EU.
In the same vein, Bolton says, the administration has deferred any effort to increase the pressure on Johnson to disavow Europe's approach to the Iran agreement and its soft line towards Huawei. Trump can wait until the prime minister has severed the ties. Some might have thought this posture generous. Serious policymakers in Whitehall know that Trump will not wait long before demanding Johnson falls into line.
Britain and the US look at the world through completely different lenses. Britain's national interest demands the multilateral engagement now so scorned in Washington. Yet Whitehall insiders also understand how hard it will be for Johnson to say no to his new pal in the White House.
When Macmillan lodged the first application for EU membership it was because he understood that for all his enthusiasm for a special relationship with the US, Britain needed the counterpoint that would come from anchoring itself to Europe. Johnson will eventually learn the same lesson.
Written by: Philip Stephens
© Financial Times