It would be all too easy, at a time like this, to advise British Prime Minister Theresa May to stay well clear of United States President-elect Donald Trump. Most people in Britain dislike Trump just as much as they used to adore US President Barack Obama. They are baffled, at best, by the president-elect’s bling and bluster, his bombastic, showbiz style, his America-first nationalism, his Twitter tirades.
There is certainly no immediate electoral advantage in being seen to be cosying up to Trump. Even Right-wing British voters are often closer in mindset to US Democrats than to Republicans; some are genuinely terrified at the prospect of Trump’s finger on the nuclear button. Middle America loved Trump’s televised press conference on Wednesday; to the majority of British viewers, it felt extraordinary, and alien.
Many Tories — including the prime minister’s advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, and the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson — were furiously anti-Trump before he was elected, though they are now busily building bridges with the new White House. There is even a view in some circles that Trump will eventually be impeached, either as a result of some Russian hacking scandal (though the latest lurid dossier lacks credibility), because he appears to have declared open warfare on his own spooks, accusing them of leaking state secrets, or as a result of a commercial conflict of interest (even though he is handing control of his business to his sons). Such people maintain, therefore, that Britain would be foolish to attempt to forge close links with the Trump administration.
It would be more sensible, in this view, to focus Britain’s efforts on staying close to Europe’s single market and customs union despite Brexit, and await the return of the Democrats in Congress in two years’ time, rather than gambling everything on a presidency that is bound to end in disaster. Let us hope that nobody in Downing Street or the Foreign Office is taking this view, for it is delusional tripe.
To shun the new administration would be to make a catastrophic error. Regardless of what one thinks of Trump, and even in the unlikely eventuality that he is eventually taken down, this is a time for realpolitik, not virtue signalling. The only thing that should matter to Britain is our national self-interest and what we can get out of a Trump presidency.
Remarkably, Britain now has the most pro-United Kingdom American administration for at least 30 years; equally astonishingly, this comes just as Britain is leaving the European Union (EU) and therefore needs alternative trade deals. US Vice-president-elect Mike Pence and the Republican leadership in Congress are equally pro-Brexit. This is therefore a seminal moment. The confluence of interests couldn’t be any more perfect and it is May’s mission to deliver upon it, regardless of her views of the new president and some of his misguided policies.
The big prize for Britain is more and freer trade with America: Britain needs to diversify away from European markets, which still account for 44 per cent of its trade (and falling fast, luckily). The City of London and Wall Street are already two peas in a pod and US and UK multinationals have huge interests in each other’s economies. The more comprehensive the deal Britain can strike, the better. Crucially, Britain needs to have it agreed as quickly as possible, even if it cannot actually take effect until the UK leaves the EU.
There is another prize also: Even greater US-UK cooperation on defence and security, and a joint effort to save Nato by making it more self-sufficient and less dependent on US taxpayers. The only question is how May should proceed?
The window of opportunity is narrow: 2017 is the year for any trade deal. It would be unwise, as well as implausible, for May to try to become Trump’s new best friend. Former US president Ronald Reagan and former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher got along very well, but that didn’t prevent the US from betraying the UK over the Falklands and the invasion of Grenada. Ronnie and Maggie soon patched things up and the 1980s were the golden age for the UK-US special relationship. But in the affairs of nations, friendship and personal chemistry are never enough to outweigh self-interest.
May should also learn from former British prime ministers Tony Blair and David Cameron’s mistakes: Each tried to have a close relationship with a US president, but for the wrong reasons and in the wrong way. Blair grovelled too much to former US president George W. Bush; he was seeking self-aggrandisement and his misplaced, doomed attempt to remake the world backfired disastrously. Cameron wanted to grab some of Obama’s stardust, not realising that the outgoing president suffered from a reverse Midas touch, especially in the Middle East.
May’s foreign policy aims must be far more limited and far more traditional: Obvious and immediate self-interest. She needs to be strong and dignified and negotiate with Trump as an equal. The good news is that reaching an agreement with Britain would be in the Republicans’ self-interest, and not just because of the way Trump sees his victory as a continuation of the anti-establishment Brexit revolt. All parts of the Republican coalition would back a deal; it would be an easy way to effect a rapprochement between Trump’s base and the party’s estranged apparatchiks.
Trump also needs to show that he can build trading links, not merely declare trade wars or erect protectionist barriers. The new administration is anti-technocracy and anti-multilateralism; to demonstrate that it remains globally minded and isn’t isolationist, it will also want to sign big bilateral deals. But Trump is a trader: He will want something else in return. May’s big offer should be on defence and security. She should make it clear that Britain wants to play a bigger part in Nato. She should agree that the UK will spend a greater share of its gross domestic product on defence, and that it will forcefully campaign to convince other European countries to do the same.
May is so far doing the right thing: She is holding her nose and preparing to work with Trump, a person for whom she has no natural affinity. She must tread carefully, of course, but a comprehensive trade deal with the US would transform Britain’s negotiating position vis-a-vis the EU. Although Trump will remain an immensely controversial figure in Britain, that mustn’t prevent May from seizing a remarkable opportunity to reboot post-Brexit Britain.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2017
Allister Heath is deputy director of content and deputy editor at the Telegraph.