The UK can't avoid dealing with Donald Trump – but we must engage intelligently

There’s no point pretending there’s a smoother path for Britain that skirts around Trump’s White House.

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No sooner had the Prime Minister left Washington, DC and landed in Turkey than she was given a stark reminder of the challenges that Britain will continue to face in dealing with Donald Trump’s White House. After her summit with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, Theresa May no doubt expected to field difficult questions about the costs of cosying up to a Turkish regime that has been engaged in a concerted campaign to undermine its citizens’ civil rights. Yet it was the reflux from an otherwise successful visit to the US that gurgled up again.

Now, Trump’s planned visit to the UK this year has been transformed from a deft touch of diplomacy – wrapping the White House visit in a neat bow with a promise of red carpet – into a serious management problem on the horizon and a lightning rod for discontent.

In inheriting the management of Brexit – something, it is worth remembering, that she did not support – May has been dealt a tough hand. That she also has to steer Britain through increasingly choppy and unpredictable international waters makes this doubly difficult. The leverage that has been lost in Europe has to be made up elsewhere.

Yet, in dealing with the new US president, the Prime Minister finds herself in a unique position for which history cannot provide much guidance. Trump is the first US president with no experience in government or the military. Moreover, the appointment of Steve Bannon, his chief strategist and the former head of the “alt-right” Breitbart News website, to the National Security Council is a statement of intent about where the decision-making power will reside.

The vanguardists of Trump’s victory continue to hold sway. For now, it seems that the new president sees himself less as a chief executive of a sprawling bureaucracy, or an international representative of Brand America, than as an outlier. His approach to waterboarding is instructive. Rather than reserving judgement until he had heard the testimonials of his intelligence experts or generals, Trump set the bait and cast the line by venturing his opinion that torture works. Having opted for outrage instead of the moral high ground, he then revealed that he was happy to cede to the better judgement of General James Mattis, the US secretary of state for defence, whose disgust for such methods is well known.

The ogreish executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority states – a list that notably excluded Saudi Arabia, from where most of the 9/11 hijackers hailed – is supposed to be “temporary” and may yet wilt in the light of legal challenges. Once again, however, rather than build a soft consensus for a new approach, the strategy, to borrow a Trumpism, was to throw a rock into a hornets’ nest.

Theresa May has been criticised for stalling in her condemnation of what is a de facto travel ban for Muslims. One thing that distinguished her from the other contenders for the Conservative leadership – notably Boris Johnson, her Foreign Secretary – is the care with which she chooses her words and the deep thought that her advisers put into her every next step. Her reputation rests on steady-handedness rather than the nimbleness that diplomacy sometimes demands. Yet her delay in condemning Trump can be explained, more than anything, by a desire not to undo the progress made on her visit to the US.

When the result of the US presidential election first became known, a leaked memorandum from the British ambassador in Washington, Kim Darroch, suggested that Trump “might be open to outside influence if pitched right”. In truth, the British have sometimes been too smug about the notion that they were the more sophisticated of the two partners in the relationship: the Greeks to America’s Rome. There is a danger of overestimating our importance as a “moderating” influence. And yet, gains on security and trade were made as a result of May’s visit to Washington. The most important of these was the tying down of Trump on Nato. He had called the organisation “obsolete”, yet May was deft enough to put the words in his mouth that he was now “100 per cent committed” to its preservation.

On the prospect of a US-UK trade deal, she had an easier brief. While the Trump team’s fondness for the idea of Brexit helps to set the mood music, the appetite for such a deal has been growing for months. Significantly, it is widely shared across the US
Republican establishment.

By addressing an audience of senior Republicans in Philadelphia before making her visit to the White House, May was appealing to them rather than betting all on a personal connection with the president. The speech that she made on that first stop is the most important on British foreign policy since Tony Blair’s Chicago speech in 1999.

In comparing the two, much was made of her greater scepticism about foreign intervention to “remake the world in our own image”. The differences between them have been overstated. Both were pleas against a retreat from a world that is confronted by complex problems – specifically, a US retreat from international leadership.

The Britain that May depicted was “by instinct and history a great, global nation that recognises its responsibilities to the world”, a friendly burden-sharer that retained its faith in shared endeavours such as Nato and the UN. Rather than falling back on a cultish focus on the “national interest”, the Prime Minister’s speech reflected a growing understanding that the UK cannot afford to become a parochial or one-dimensional power. The road ahead is full of potholes but it is no use pretending that there is a smoother path that easily skirts around Trump’s White House and somehow secures a softer landing for Britain via Berlin or Beijing.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer

John Bew is Professor of History and Foreign Policy at King’s College London and is leading a project looking at Britain’s place in the world for Policy Exchange. He is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of Citizen Clem, an Orwell Prize-winning biography of Clement Attlee. 

This article appears in the 02 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, American carnage