While the focus in Westminster is still on the fallout from yesterday’s court ruling and the parliamentary battle over Article 50, the foreign-policy focus in Whitehall is on Friday’s visit to meet Donald Trump.
In the FT, George Parker has a good primer on what Downing Street wants out of the trip, while his colleague Demetri Sevastopulo has the view from the White House. Progress on a US-UK trade deal has become psychologically important on both sides. For the Trump administration, because it proves the hype over his ability as a dealmaker, and for Downing Street, as a proof-of-concept that the UK can survive and thrive as a beacon of free trade after Brexit.
The two sides will focus on the things they agree on: trade deals (good) and Islamic terrorism (bad). But the problem is that even on those areas of unity, the phrase “dialogue of the deaf” comes to mind.
Let’s take trade. May’s inner circle have been worried since before Trump’s election that the Brexit vote, the global opposition to TTIP the success of Bernie Sanders and Trump’s candidacy, let alone his victory, were all part of an alarming worldwide reaction against free trade. Trump’s inner circle believe that every trade deal the United States has signed has been to the detriment of the other United States and to the advantage of other nations. As far as the global fight for free trade is concerned, Trump is part of the problem, not the solution.
Any US-UK trade deal is quickly going to get bogged down in the Trump administration’s hostility to fair trade deals and the thorny issues of British agriculture and the public services.
And then there’s Islamic terrorism. Trump believes that Vladimir Putin is part of the solution as far as Syria is concerned and seems to be willing to grant him freedom of manoeuvre not only as far as his own citizens are concerned but his immediate neighbourhood as well. The British government is among the most hostile to Putin in the world, something which will become even more striking once Francois Hollande enters retirement.
And those are just the areas we think we can at least make warm noises on as far as Trump is concerned. We shouldn’t forget that May is not the first, but the second global leader to meet with Donald Trump since his shock election. The first was Shinzo Abe. Among his priorities: maintaining the security of America’s allies in the Pacific and preserving TPP. Since that visit, Trump has continued to pioneer his destabilising new model of TweetDeck diplomacy as far as North Korea and China are concerned, and has mothballed TTP. The Prime Minister shouldn’t expect her trip to work out any better.