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2 February 2017

Leader: Engage but beware

When it comes to Donald Trump, the UK government can't afford to be passive.

By New Statesman

Donald Trump is governing as he promised he would. The US president was elected on the most reactionary platform of any recent candidate and has introduced his programme with ruthless speed. He has ended funding for international organisations that perform or provide information on abortions, restarted the construction of two oil pipelines (having once dismissed climate change as a Chinese hoax), floated the revival of torture and ordered the building of a wall on the border with Mexico. Of all the president’s acts, the most egregious was his ban on refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority states entering the US.

Mr Trump’s immigration policy is immoral and reckless. The United States, like all developed countries, has a duty to shelter refugees. America has a proud history of welcoming the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. Mr Trump’s stance is the antithesis of this enlightened vision. That he signed the order on International Holocaust Remembrance Day betrayed either his ignorance or his callousness.

Refugees already undergo the strictest background checks of anyone entering the US: admission typically takes between 18 and 24 months. Mr Trump contends that further limitations are required to shield his country from terrorism. Yet while banning people from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, he has left unaffected those from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates – countries that hosted the 11 September 2001 hijackers but where the president has business interests. Of the 800,000 refugees admitted since the attacks, just five have been found guilty of involvement in terrorism – none of it on American soil. Mr Trump’s decision to discriminate against Muslims is a propaganda gift to Islamic State. The terrorist group asserts that the US is the enemy of all believers, rather than merely jihadists. Mr Trump’s position risks validating this claim.

The United States is a country built by immigrants and has long thrived on their contributions. Mr Trump’s executive order is an act of economic, cultural and diplomatic self-harm. It is also almost certainly unconstitutional, violating the prohibition against religious discrimination. Yet the president’s decision to defy a judicial ruling on deportations shows his disregard for established norms.

The constitution was designed precisely to constrain autocrats such as Mr Trump. But though he entered office with the lowest approval rating of any president, the institutional restraints on him are limited. In addition to the White House, the Republicans control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority.

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For these reasons, there is a heightened responsibility on allies of the US to challenge the president’s behaviour. Theresa May was criticised by many for her initial failure to condemn Mr Trump’s immigration ban. Yet the Prime Minister is in an invidious position. She has resolved that the UK must maintain working relations with the US (a stance seconded by Jeremy Corbyn) in the hope of influencing Mr Trump for good. The new reality of Brexit – an outcome that Mrs May opposed – places a further premium on such alliances.

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However, confronted with Mr Trump – an unprecedented threat to the post-1945 liberal order – the UK cannot be passive. Although the US has granted dual nationals, such as the great Olympian Mo Farah, an exemption from the ban, Britain must continue to protest against the treatment of others. It cannot allow the prospect of a post-Brexit trade deal to reduce its foreign policy to simple self-interest. The UK’s standing is not served by the country being seen as a “vassal state” (in the words of the French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron).

More than 1.6 million people have signed a petition against Mr Trump’s planned state visit to the UK. If he comes, the president should not be accorded the privilege of addressing MPs and peers at Westminster Hall (only eight people, including Charles de Gaulle, Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama and Aung San Suu Kyi, have had that honour).

The US president’s contempt for a rules-based international order risks inaugurating an era in which the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. Britain must use every tool to bind Mr Trump to the established order. Yet, as the government does so, Mrs May should remember her own diplomatic advice and “engage but beware”. 

This article appears in the 01 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, American carnage