Donald Trump’s ‘working visit’ is destined to be a working disaster
Last year Theresa May became the first foreign leader to meet with President Trump following his inauguration. The purpose of this prompt visit, we were told, was to lay the ground-work for Trump to commit fully to the NATO alliance, which he had previously reviled as “obsolete” during his summer campaign. Apart from the over-effusive, hasty invitation of a state visit and the terribly awkward hand-holding incident outside the White House, the visit seemed like an overall diplomatic win for May and prospects were bright for the blossoming of the ‘special relationship’.
A year on, the transatlantic political stage looks quite different and in an entirely unsurprising turn of events, Trump’s adulations for May’s government now look worthless. What a time for Trump’s first presidential visit to the UK to have taken place.
At the annual NATO summit hours before landing in Stansted on Thursday, Trump severely rocked the boat when he suggested NATO leaders increase their defence spending to 4% (from the 2% target that many NATO countries have yet to meet), made a thinly veiled threat that the US would leave the alliance otherwise and accused Germany of being "a captive of Russia". This sent NATO diplomats, foreign leaders and the Republican-controlled House scrambling into damage-control mode in a flurry of press conferences. US House Speaker Paul Ryan cautiously affirmed that “NATO is indispensable”, Emmanuel Macron set the record straight assuring the allies that no new defence spending commitments had been made as Trump had claimed and Theresa May used a press conference to declare once more that everything was wonderful in the proverbial garden. Trump has since expressed his commitment to strengthening NATO (we know how those go!) but not before delivering a magnificent blow to Soft-Brexit dreams, just another in string of post-Chequers blows to May’s Cabinet this past week.
In an astounding intervention in British domestic politics, Trump dramatically undermined the Prime minister’s new-born ‘Brexit-but-not-exit’ plan, saying: “I’m not sure that’s what people voted for” as Nigel Farage’s delighted cackled echoed through the FOX News studios, probably. Trump went on to warn that any attempt to keep close ties with the European Union would “kill” any future trade deals between he US and the UK. Trump is referring here to the White Paper published on Thursday which sets out a plan for a common rule book with the EU on goods and agri-foods, which would make a US trade agreement more difficult. To add salt to the wound, Trump sang the praises of recently departed European ally and fellow transnational agitator, Boris Johnson, stating that “he would make a "great prime minister." I bet that was an interesting lunch at Chequers. And yes, Trump may have gone back on this statement and accused the Sun of “fake news” at a joint press conference with May, but we should all know by now to take what he says on these occasions with a pinch of salt.
There are several reasons why I think this ‘working visit’ can only worsen the UK’s standing on the global political stage and none of them are moralistic. Thousands of protesters and several ministers, most prominently Speaker of the House John Bercow, have expressed their reservations about the UK appearing to align itself with a regime so intensely accused of human-rights violations, homophobia, misogyny and scandal. However, while Bercow is right that Trump shouldn’t have been invited to address Parliament so soon after his inauguration (Obama was only invited 3 years into his presidency), it isn’t as if we haven’t hosted state visits by regimes of a similar murky moral standing before- Putin, Xi Jinping, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Bush, to name just a few.
No, this visit can only end badly for UK-US relations because firstly, it was not ‘State visit’- that is, a visit hosted by the Queen, typically accompanied by the utmost palatial pomp. Additionally, although Trump was given the opportunity to have tea with the Queen at Windsor castle on Saturday, the visit was relegated to one of ‘working’ status’, entailing three days of dodging hostile metropolitan hordes before flying to his golf-course in Scotland. The optics will certainly fall short of what Trump might have imagined when May dangled the prospect of a carriage ride up The Mall a year ago. Will this notoriously thin-skinned President be willing to play ball in terms of a trade deal? Especially since he’s fully aware of the state of “turmoil” which embroil the Brexit talks.
Secondly, this visit couldn’t have been more poorly timed for Theresa May if BoJo had orchestrated the whole thing from the Telegraph correspondence office in Brussels twenty-five years ago. Trump’s first presidential visit to the UK is awkwardly sandwiched between his free-wheeling performance at the NATO summit and his upcoming meeting with Putin in Helsinki, where he’ll undoubtedly find more in common with the strong-man than the G7 leaders. Let’s also not forget, our uniquely weakened negotiating position owing to the resignations of two senior ministers and plans for a back-bench revolt earlier this week too.
We are faced with this troubling prospect; these rushed few days are a critical juncture for the future of this country.
On one hand, Theresa May could stand by her ‘Brexit-in-name-only’ plan, maintain some ties to the EU and risk losing out on a much need UK-US trade deal.
On the other, if May caves and gives in to the hard-line Brexiteers backed by Trump yes, we could potentially capitalise on the special relationship and acquire a US-UK trade deal however this would also entail the UK being heavily dependent on World Trade Organisation rules. This is quite troubling and risky for the UK since the tariffs Trump has imposed on China, the EU, Canada and Mexico suggest that Trump may be moving towards splintering the WTO. Trump has shown a clear distaste for multilateral agreements (the Paris Climate Change agreement, the Iran Nuclear deals) and the reality is, the Trump regime lacks predictability and reliability which would make the US a suitable partner within a special relationship. It would be naïve, then, to allow the future of this country to be dangled in front of us in the name of a ‘special relationship’ – a relationship which has for a long time been viewed in Washington as a strange, outdated British obsession they’ve been forced to play along with.
While it is undeniable that US is an indispensable ally, May should maintain a polite, sensible distance from Trump. We must heed by the reasoning of our own White Papers and acknowledge the clear differences in the values and interests between Trump’s America and the UK rather than trying to sheepishly appease this unpredictable world power.
May must not be cornered into prioritising the resuscitation of an indisposed ‘special relationship over’ the UK’s national interest, either by Trump or by hard-line Brexiteers. Trade deals with Canada, Australia and New Zealand would be much more practical.