The few days since the election of Trump to the US Presidency have already produced a deluge of comment. In truth we are no nearer to understanding whether Trump is a cynical populist who will try to distance himself in office from the commitments he made to get there or someone who wants to use the Presidency to pursue the ugly prejudices which he articulated; whether he will listen to necessary but unwelcome advice or simply indulge his massive ego; whether he is primarily interested in making deals with potential adversaries or picking fights with overseas governments which cross him.
The question of Britain’s future role in the Trump world is a parochial one but important for us. The obvious starting point is to observe that the UK is in a horribly exposed place: no mans’ land. We are still in the EU but in the process of leaving it with not even the bare elements of a successor regime in place. Yet we are clearly now paddling our own canoe as signified by Boris Johnson’s boycott of the EU’s Trump summit.
We claim to have a Special Relationship with the USA-which in reality is more obvious to Brits than Americans, but has real meaning in some areas like intelligence sharing. However, to the extent that it exists, it reflects a British world-view of shared alliances, free trade and multilateral diplomacy which was closely aligned to that of President Obama and defeated candidate Hillary Clinton and is utterly anathema to Trump Republicans.
The first days are not encouraging. Perhaps we should discount the reports of Mrs May being well down the list of well-wishers telephoning Trump after his victory. More significant is the fact that the first British politician to visit President=elect Trump was Nigel Farage, a move that was hardly likely to be impulsive but reflects appreciation of Farage’s loyal support and common outlook on the world. Farage is, of course, a serious player as Remainers are now painfully aware but, at most, representative of the 15% of the British public who do not think Trump will make a bad President.
The Farage visit does however put Theresa May in a very uncomfortable position. She can follow in the Farage slipstream, grovelling, telling Trump that all the adverse comments she and others made about him were ‘misunderstandings’ and that, basically, we share his prejudices after all: a debasement which would earn the contempt of many of her Tory colleagues let alone everyone else. Or she can remain aloof, dignified, like Angela Merkel, waiting for Trump to make the first move: almost certainly the better option but one which advertises British irrelevance.
There are essentially two views about how the UK-Trump relationship can evolve. The first is to be found in the Daily Express and like-minded papers and expressed politically by Farage and Dr Fox: that here is a unique opportunity to be the US President’s friend and little helper and, in the process, line up a US-UK trade deal post-Brexit. After all Trump repeatedly argued that Brexit was a model for his insurgency; so perhaps he can help us make it work? He appears to like the UK to the extent that he knows anything about us beyond golf courses. The more hopeful argue that we even have a modern version of the Reagan-Thatcher relationship; though that rested on shared values and optimism about the world both of which are difficult to discern now. In any event trade negotiations cannot start until we leave the EU and it is difficult to see, beyond symbolism, what such an agreement could deliver of importance and of real interest to the US in full protectionist mode.
An altogether more plausible outlook is described in a piece in the Mail on Sunday by the American historian Anne Applebaum :America First; Britain Last. She believes that the Special Relationship stuff is just fluff, of absolutely no consequence. Trump’s lack of interest in NATO, eagerness to do a deal with Russia, willingness to endorse the Assad regime in Syria, hostility to the liberal international economic order and free trade, hostility to the global agreement on climate change: all put him at odds with the UK which he may like in a vague sort of way but is of no real consequence. Her conclusion is that the UK should be buckling down to pan-European defence cooperation, Brexit or no-Brexit: an idea unlikely to appeal to those in government and in the press who see a Remainer conspiracy behind every bush.
The clue to the future of our relations with the USA is perhaps to be found in Theresa May’s visit to India earlier in the week. Much goodwill was expressed. Another Special Relationship (sorry, Strategic Partnership). The Prime Minister looked very fetching in a sarree. But little of substance was agreed because Britain has little to offer. The British government may soon realise that unless it is willing to sign up the full Trump agenda it will have as little credibility in Washington as it currently does in Brussels and Berlin.