The Strained Relationship

The clash of policy between Trump’s America and a May UK

President Donald Trump and his family walk down Pennsylvania Avenue during the inaugural parade.

As the newly sworn in President returns the bust of Churchill to the Oval Office, many in Britain now look forward to a close relationship. Whilst the Special Relationship will endure regardless of who holds the Presidency in the US, due to our shared culture, history, and values, the Trump Presidency poses new challenges and strains on the relationship.

Trump ran a campaign fuelled by protectionism. Tweet after tweet, speech after speech were filled with anti-trade rhetoric. Slating NAFTA and killing TPP, he used his inauguration speech to say “Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength”. Now there are many within his fold that say Trump will look to complete a quick free trade deal with the UK upon leaving the EU with Trump’s British cheerleader saying the US will strike a trade deal with the UK within 90 days. It’s worth bearing in mind that it took the US and Canada, from negotiations to implementation, around 3 years for their bilateral trade deal to be worked out. With the American andCanadian economies complimenting each other better than those of any other two countries it still took around 3 years for a trade deal. That’s because trade deals are complicated. Trade deals cover regulation, tariffs, dispute settlement. Save for a trade deal with the only words being “the freer the market, the freer the people” not many people believe we can get a good trade deal with the US fast. That’s without mentioning the US has a trade deficit with the UK. How does Britain come out well from a quick fire trade deal with “America First”?

In Trump’s crusade against free trade, he’s taken particular aim at China, with the word “China” becoming a major buzzword in his campaign. And that doesn’t look to be just campaign bluster, the new National Trade Council director is Peter Navarro, one of China’s fiercest critics, writing the book “Death by China”. Whilst there may be a debate to be had about the threat of Chinese trade practices, a hardline American stance towards China creates further conflict with the UK. Whilst May’s wariness over Hinkley Point C was noted, she still went ahead with it. The UK still supports the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, seen a rival to the American led World Bank and we still champion British-Chinese Trade, with May hoping to visit China to shore up trade relatively soon. With the UK tying her economy so closely to that of China’s, a Trump led trade war with Beijing will result in Britain being caught in the crossfire.

Whilst there are economic differences between the White House and Downing Street , it’s foreign policy which holds the most questions. Russia, Syria, NATO, Israel, the EU. Almost all areas of foreign policy under Trump look challenging from a British perspective.

Trump is well known for his stance on Russia. Whilst the rest of the West stands against Russia, Trump casts doubt on the Western Russian consensus with his constant fawning over Vladimir Putin. Putting aside claims from intelligence agencies that Russia sought to influence the US election, whilst Trump praises strongman Putin, Britain calls Putin a war criminal. The difference in approach to Russia is stark. It may have been true that our Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has been accused of being ‘Putin apologist’ and has praised Assad in the past, but as Foreign Secretary he’s been both hard on Putin and Assad. Putin is a major threat and stumbling block to peace in Syria. This isn’t just a tragedy but also has direct implications on the movement of refugees into Europe. Trump has suggested he’ll side with Russia in Syria whilst the May Government says Putin has committed war crimes in Syria. These two positions aren’t easily reconcilable.

In recent months, Russia’s involvement in Syria has been at the forefront of the news agenda, so it’s easy to forget to ongoing conflict in Ukraine. On the campaign trail, Trump has claimed both Russia isn’t in Ukraine and that he’d recognise Crimea as part of Russia, again clashing with the Western foreign policy consensus. With Crimea having been annexed by Russia nearly two years ago, there may be a debate to be had on how we go forward in approaching Russia on Ukraine. However the accidental way in which Trump talks about Ukraine and Russia isn’t the way to go. It’s the reason the way many were concerned about his handling over One-China policy. It’s not the challenging of the policy itself (a policy that many still believe is the best for stability) but the accidental way in which he does it. By an accidental phone call. It’s his whole approach to Russia. Many are critical of Obama’s handling of foreign policy, including his approach to Russia, but few argue that he didn’t try reset the relationship with Russia in a careful way, with a plan. Trump shows signs of both cozying up to Putin and doing so in an careless way.

Then Secretary Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pressing the symbolic “reset” button.

The new found US-Russia alliance has many in Europe worried about defence. With Ukraine, Trump has already shown disregard to the security of America’s allies. With his comments on NATO, he makes already nervous allies across Europe more so. The UK has stood shoulder to shoulder with Europe over Russia, with both strong rhetoric and sanctions. With Trump both signalling his flexibility on Russian sanctions and his lacklustre commitment to NATO, both conflict greatly with British policy. With defence being more important than ever, with a rampant Russia, Trump chooses to call NATO “obsolete” and choses to tie defence of NATO allies with their defence spending. Both Obama and Cameron have said NATO members must meet defence obligations but never alongside of a threat. Already nervous Baltic states under pressure by a Trump backed Russia can’t be feeling too good. NATO is not only an integral part of European defence strategy, it’s a major part of British defence strategy. Whilst some claim it to be a remnant of a Cold War era, NATO has been integral to British and European defence strategy for decades. For Trump, that small fact appears to be unimportant.

With the UK’s decision to leave the European Union on June 23rd, you may be forgiven in thinking we’ve turned our back on Europe. However, May said clearly that she wants the European Union to succeed for it’s own sake and for Britain’s post-Brexit success. How does that square with Mr. Brexit railing against the EU?

Trump has only been in office for a few days now. He still has many months and years to show how he treats the UK. With May being the first foreign leader to visit Trump as President this coming Friday, maybe she can influence Trump and work out some solutions to their major differences. Will it be a Reagan and Thatcher relationship? Ideological soulmates? Well, we’ll see how ideologically close America First is to Global Britain.