President John F Kennedy with the prime minister of the ‘middle power’ UK, Harold Macmillan, in 1961 © Bettmann /Getty

The open secret about London’s cherished “special relationship” with Washington is that it is a great deal more special for the British than for the Americans.

Winston Churchill embellished the relationship with all manner of flummery, including shared ideals and values, a common language and unique bonds of kith and kin. US presidents have taken an unsentimental view, always measuring the bargain against the national interest.

As far back as the 1960s, an adviser to John F Kennedy’s White House pointed up the asymmetry. Whatever the view in London, Richard Neustadt observed, Washington saw the UK as “a middle power, neither equal nor vassal, which history, geography or economics rendered especially significant to us for the time being”. For London, the relationship was existential. In Washington it was a nice to have.

The imbalance has grown more pronounced over time. The UK still likes to present itself as a pocket superpower, equipping its military with the most advanced weaponry. One result is that its national security — its nuclear weapons, the fighter planes that fly from its aircraft carriers, aerial surveillance of its coastal waters — is deeply embedded in the ties with Washington.

Prime ministers make much of the supposed “independence” of the Trident nuclear deterrent. They rarely add that, from the beginning, when Harold Macmillan negotiated with Kennedy to buy the Polaris missile system, Washington has insisted on a big say in its deployment. Independent it may be in name, but the UK depends on the US to make the system work.

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The outcome is a special relationship that is as much a source of neuralgia as influence. Even as they have signed up to the idea that the road to international influence runs through Washington, successive prime ministers have fretted mightily lest the White House cool.

Edward Heath alone among postwar British leaders was unfussed about securing a White House audience with the president. Instead of making an unseemly dash to Washington after his 1970 election, he waited for Richard Nixon to visit him at his country residence, Chequers.

For Boris Johnson, these enduring anxieties have been sharpened by Americans’ choice of Joe Biden as their next president. The prime minister was one of Donald Trump’s chums, winning his backing for Brexit even while then-president Barack Obama supported David Cameron’s Remain campaign.

Close aides to the president-elect talk about Mr Johnson’s populist politics as Trump-lite. Veterans of the Obama administration now with Mr Biden have neither forgotten nor forgiven the prime minister’s jibe that Mr Obama’s view of the UK was influenced by a “part-Kenyan” ancestry.

Mr Johnson is right to be worried. Mr Biden may not bear grudges, but he will be disinclined to give the prime minister the benefit of the doubt. Mr Johnson intends his vision of “Global Britain” to give the nation a swagger on the international stage. In truth, he badly needs a trade deal with the US. Mr Biden has told him there is no such prospect if his demands for a Brexit deal with Brussels risk upsetting the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Brexit has further diminished the worth of the relationship to the US. For the 40-odd years of its membership, the UK was a supportive, Atlanticist voice in the counsels of Europe, amplifying Washington’s liberal, open-market instincts. Post Brexit, that role has been lost and with it has gone a significant measure of US interest in the UK.

The line to take for British officials is that the two nations’ institutional ties — military and intelligence as well as economic — will survive bumpy moments between Mr Johnson and Mr Biden. This is true as far as it goes. It avoids, though, the bigger picture of an ever-more-unbalanced relationship.

Of course, as the chair of next year’s round of climate talks and the G7 group of industrial nations, the UK can make itself useful to Washington. Yet the negotiations that will matter at the climate talks will be between the US and the EU, and then with China and India. The UK has become a bystander. As for trade, Mr Johnson will have to wait his turn behind Brussels. The EU27 provides a market for about 16 per cent of US exports. The UK takes less than 5 per cent.

Neustadt’s hard-headed assessment carried a warning — “for the time being”. Mr Biden is not about to jettison a still-useful ally because he dislikes Mr Johnson. He can afford to pay less attention to London and turn to Berlin and Paris in resetting the transatlantic relationship. The cost for the UK promises to be one it finds hard to bear: a slow drift to irrelevance. 

philip.stephens@ft.com

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