There’s danger in getting too close to Donald Trump. As Theresa May heads to the White House she needs to keep her distance
Lots of nonsense is talked about Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with the United States, born out of urgent mutual necessity in the Second World War and the subject of neurotic obsession, at least in London, ever since. But nonsense is talked by the scoffers as well as by sentimentalists.
Theresa May is rightly pleased that she will be the first foreign head of government to visit Donald Trump’s White House, the stakes are very high for her in terms of opportunity – and of risk.
This weekend’s trip will also provide a welcome distraction from the Supreme Court’s 8-3 ruling (a 72.7 % to 27.3% majority on my maths) that parliament must have some oversight of the Brexit process.
The ruling creates relatively minor procedural hurdles for the executive branch of government to overcome in triggering Article 50, one which assorted Remain forces will seek to refine, but not thwart. It seems appropriate to a political decision whose advocates seek to reassert parliamentary sovereignty, though the ‘enemies of the people’ tabloids were still enraged. It is what they do. Promising to publish a form of Brexit white paper shows more sense.
Fleet St’s nationalist wing might better focus its alarm on the threat to sovereignty which a fast-track trade deal between the US and novice British trade negotiators might generate. As one wit put it, which part of the new president’s ‘buy American, hire American, only America first’ mantra of an inaugural address does No 10 not understand?
This is the epoch-changing world into which May heads, a foreign policy innocent in all but immigration and security. Scary, but she will also have potential allies there for her declared agenda: a strong NATO and EU, an open global trading system and responsible monetary/fiscal policies. Smart Congressional Republicans and some members of the new cabinet share May’s concerns.
Yes, Britain has inevitably been the junior, less ‘special’ partner in the Anglo-American alliance since Churchill first heard of the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 and said ‘So, we have won after all’. The PM dashed to Washington and spent days pushing FDR’s wheelchair, mixing him horrible cocktails as part of the bonding process. It did not stop the Yanks driving relentlessly hard bargains at every turn of the war. When it was won they promptly turned off the aid tap to an exhausted Britain while mopping up its markets.
So the imbalance has remained. Everyone remembers that Tony Blair was lured into a poorly-justified war and ill-prepared occupation of Iraq in 2003. Yet, except among the far left and the old imperialist right, selective amnesia prevents most Brits remembering that President Eisenhower, Ike of D-Day comradeship, pulled the plug on the Anglo-French Suez invasion in 1956 and that Ronald Reagan repeatedly charmed but also humbled his pal, Margaret Thatcher. He invaded the Commonwealth mini-state of Grenada in 1983 without telling her and almost forced her to cede de facto sovereignty of the Falklands to Argentina (1982). Only the stupidity of the junta in Buenos Aires saved the Iron Lady’s iron.
Under Thatcher and other tenants of No 10, there was much more like that – ‘bitter lessons in how large powers behave’ as Mrs T remarked at the time. President Trump has probably not heard of the Liverpool good time girl’s ballad, Maggie May, but when he talks of ‘My Maggie’ Downing St’s May should take it as a hint that the president’s strategic and economic behaviour will be barely less predatory than his well-documented sexual conduct – something the PM dared to reject on Sky News’s sofa.
That said, the Brits do still matter in
Washington in ways that few others do. The US and its culture may no longer be dominated by the old north European tribes: British, Irish, Dutch and German. But Magna Carta, the common law, the English language as mapped by the King James Bible and Shakespeare, all remain great inventions of which they are rightly proud.
Since 1945 we have been their dependable allies, the unsinkable nuclear-armed (whoops, there goes a wonky missile) aircraft carrier anchored off Europe. We do not cost them much and, as Henry Kissinger once said, still turn up for a scrap when some key NATO allies do not. When British MPs voted against bombing the Assad regime in August 2013, it was a shock in Washington as well as an excuse for Barack Obama’s default tendency to inaction.
It’s all business interests over affections, but personal chemistry can matter too. On the evidence neither May nor Trump have much of a sense of humour. He lacks Reagan’s courtesy, she lacks Thatcher’s ideological zeal, her 24/7 urge to preach. May’s stylish dress sense and natural reticence may not quite be Trump’s. The president will probably be advised (but will he listen?) not to talk too much about golf or beauty pageants he has supervised.
But the most unlikely people sometimes hit it off: Thatcher with lefties Mitterrand and Gorbachev, George Bush senior with John Major, his son with Clinton groupie, Blair. Churchill and FDR, whom he snubbed in their youth, were not a natural match, but managed famously because they had to. In a brutal calculation, Reagan gave Neil Kinnock, Labour’s leftwing leader in the 80s, only a few minutes of Oval Office time and no photo op. That’s politics.
The pomp bit will be easy and the White House can ramp it up or down as suits its needs. Foreign leaders pass through the imperial capital of the West every day and sometimes get caught in local cross fire, as Tony Blair found when quizzed about Clinton’s love life. It rarely gets much US media attention and a weekend visit may not help the PM get on prime time TV in a stylish outfit that reinforces the prime ministerial image we are told to expect in a spring edition of US Vogue.
It happens that the president is a bit needy in the pomp department too. We read he wants a British state visit, the best and biggest ever (of course), which means some facetime with the Queen – the real one, not Helen Mirren or Netflix’s Claire Foy. It is terrifying infliction on a 90-year-old monarch with little small talk about golf or experience of hotels. If called upon the make the sacrifice this summer she will manage as usual. That may rebalance the odds slightly in May’s favour.
In any case it is all mood music at this stage. British ministers have made clear their determination to leave both single market and customs union. European ministers have reminded them that they cannot start negotiating all those new trade deals with the US and New Zealand (pop. 4.47 million) until they are properly Brexited. Both sides are testing each other’s boundaries and resolve, more aware than they care to admit to their voters – many of whom are in a nationalistic and authoritarian Brexit mood too – that miscalculation can harm us all.
The danger for May, inherent in such an early visit to such a still-fluid and unpredictable administration, is surely reputational. On Israel’s new settlements, on Trident mishaps and other routine transactions she has allowed the impression to emerge that she is racing too fast to make peace with Trumpismo after her diplomats dismissed his candidacy and her own aides made rude Trump-esque comments on Twitter. Angela Merkel has been more guarded, the French are fighting each other while Vladimir Putin, Trump’s other new best friend (but for how long?), plays peacekeeper over Syria.
The US president’s remarks about NATO freeloading and Germany’s ascendancy over the EU have upset Brussels (HQ to both), but they have some validity. An under-valued currency boosts German exports, at great cost to its southern neighbours. Some EU states are upgrading their defence budgets, just as US automakers are having second thoughts about new plants in Mexico under duress from the White House’s famous ‘bully pulpit’.
But ‘bully’ meant ‘wonderful’ more than threatening when reformist Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt (1909-09), first coined it and he was a policymaker of vision and substance. Merely populist politicians’ policies are prone to eventual failure because much of what they promise is contradictory, plain self-defeating and dangerous. But they sometimes succeed in the short run, as Trump may with his trade protectionism, tax cuts and plans to rebuild America’s battered infrastructure.
May would do better to sup with a long spoon until it becomes clearer whether the populists in Team Trump are in the ascendancy or the Goldman Sachs technocrats are (again). Some analysts predict a fateful collision between self-styled dealmaker Trump’s ‘alternative facts’ approach and realities on the ground, at home and abroad. Especially perilous is his deal-making with China, far too powerful now to be pushed around and holding much US debt. As with Brexit and the EU, both sides have much to lose from excess pugnacity and neither has a monopoly of right on its side.
In 2017 – unlike 1817 or 1917 – May’s Britain is more of a global Championship player than a Premier League contender. It is not treason or defeatism to say so, though Brexit cheerleaders will protest as they seek, Trump-style, to quash all resistance to their hard Brexit option towards which Britain is now heading.
But Brexit ministers might usefully ask themselves and any experts they can muster, how key sectors of British agriculture might fare in a free trade deal that opened UK markets to US farm exports? The Daily Mail, scourge of genetically-modified ‘Frankenstein’ farming, might ask how much of such exports would be GM crops and livestock?
Defenders of the NHS’s structures and values – those who insisted that the proposed TTIP trade deal between the EU and US would not open it up to unfair and inefficient American health corporations – should pause to wonder how well Britain could resist such pressure alone, especially if Liam Fox remains in charge of such talks?
US trade negotiators are in the habit of virtually sending a fax of their demands to would-be trade partners and waiting for agreement. That’s why talks with the EU have been so protracted, Brussels is not a pushover. Belatedly, May has declared her concern about US giants like Pfizer trying to use surplus funds to buy rival AstraZeneca. Yet last summer her ministers praised Japan’s £24 billion ‘bargain basement’ takeover of ARM Holdings, Britain’s best tech unicorn, as proof that the country is still ‘open for business’.
So May should enjoy Washington pomp, admire Churchill’s bust restored to the Oval Office and the view from the rose garden. But she should otherwise proceed with caution. On his own admission this president is not averse to taking advantage of a damsel in distress, though Britannia is on the elderly side. But he’s not the first to try it on. Family is family, but business is business.
Michael White is a former political editor of the Guardian