Leader: The chill winds of isolation for Britain

Donald Trump’s state visit confronted us with the geopolitical realities that the UK will face should it leave the EU. 

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Donald Trump’s state visit to Britain was a grim coda to Theresa May’s doomed premiership. The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Mr Trump is surely its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Far from being moderated by the burden of office, Mr Trump has used his pulpit to indulge in posturing and abuse.

The rules-based international order that the president threatens has frequently been more of a myth than a reality (recall the Vietnam War, the 2003 Iraq War and the Bush administration’s non-ratification of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change). But Mr Trump is a unilateralist and nationalist.

Since entering office, the president has imposed punitive tariffs on Europe and China, threatened to leave Nato, agitated for the disintegration of the European Union, withdrawn from the Paris climate change agreement, cut UN funding by $285m and abandoned the Iran nuclear deal. The US, which acted as the guarantor of the post-1945 international order, is performing what the historian Nigel Hamilton has called an “Amerexit”.

Mr Trump’s state visit confronted us with the geopolitical realities that Britain will face should it leave the EU. The president repeatedly promised the UK a “big trade deal” once it is liberated from the “shackles” of Brussels. But the costs this could entail were spelled out by the US ambassador, Woody Johnson. When asked on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show whether health care would be part of any future agreement, Mr Johnson replied: “I think probably the entire economy, in a trade deal all things that are traded will be on the table.”

The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, swiftly insisted that “the NHS is not for sale” and would “not be on the table”. That may be so, but the US, by virtue of its size and power, will dictate the terms of any deal. In sensitive areas, such as drugs pricing and agriculture, Brexit Britain would be forced to accede to American demands or secure no agreement at all.

Yet such discussion is premature. Until Britain leaves the EU, and any future customs union, it will be barred from signing independent trade agreements. The notion that a limited deal with the US could compensate for reduced business with the EU (the destination of 44 per cent of British exports) is fantastical. As economists are fond of pointing out, in trade, geography matters more than history. However cherished the bond between the US and the UK, their natural economic partners are their closest neighbours.

But Mr Trump’s opponents, as well as his supporters, have questions to answer. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, chose to address the Trafalgar Square demonstration against the US president in the manner of a protester, rather than an aspirant prime minister. International relations is not a morality play; leaders must with dispassionate realism face the world as it is, not as they wish it to be. Would Mr Corbyn be prepared to sacrifice intelligence relations with the US?

If the UK eventually leaves the EU, as the Labour leader hopes, its dependence on the US will be increased. To dismantle two pillars of British foreign policy at once, as Mr Corbyn sometimes appears to propose, would be reckless.

In the three years since Britain voted Leave, the international climate has grown more inhospitable. Mr Trump is part of a wave of authoritarian nationalists leading the world’s most populous countries, along with China’s Xi Jinping, India’s Narendra Modi, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

The so-called special relationship with the US, and the wider Anglosphere, were once proposed by Brexiteers as substitutes for EU membership. In the era of Mr Trump it is ever clearer that they cannot be. The EU, for all its defects and limitations, is the world’s foremost alliance of democracies and the only transnational regional power with the capability to challenge the US and China. The UK cannot single-handedly prevent the malevolent rise of demagogues across the world. Soon enough it will experience the chill winds of isolation.

This article appears in the 07 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump alliance