I've seen many US presidents meet UK prime ministers. This is what both sides will want from Trump's UK state visit

At times in recent years, UK politics has resembled a circular firing squad. There will be anxiety that Trump will throw in an extra grenade

Tom Fletcher
Wednesday 29 May 2019 14:24
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I have been present for many meetings between US presidents and UK prime ministers. They are never straightforward or predictable, and can be fiendishly stressful for those closely involved. The UK media look for any hint of presidential indifference — or, if that doesn’t stick, chumminess. Everything from the body language to the length of the press conference to the exchange of gifts is picked over for hidden meaning.

Visits succeed when both sides see a strong political incentive for them to do so: an upcoming election, ambitious shared foreign policy initiatives, or a common enemy. And where there is strong personal chemistry.

Evidently, therefore, next week’s state visit of Donald Trump will be challenging. Perhaps the most challenging in memory. Many on the British side hoped that an invitation given in haste would not be taken up in this presidential term. Watching the turmoil of UK politics over the past week, many on both sides have questioned whether the timing is still ideal.

But as things stand, Air Force One will pull up on the tarmac on 3 June. Buckingham Palace have scheduled a discreet reception for the President, rather than the usual pomp and ceremony of Horse Guards Parade. Renovation of the Palace means that he won’t stay there. And security concerns prevent the offer of a ride down The Mall in a gold carriage, something Donald Trump craved.

On previous state visits, the president has hosted a dinner at the US embassy for the Queen. In this case, Prince Charles will attend on her behalf. The Prime Minister will also host a meeting with President Trump at Downing Street, before stepping down as party leader a few days later.

Widespread protests will again form a backdrop to the visit, capturing a cross-party distaste for Trump’s policies, style and values. But the UK must also separate Trump the pantomime villain from Trump the US president. Given the sensitivities, ambitions will be modest. And Britain needs three things from the visit.

Firstly, to show the world — and the country itself — that there is a world beyond Brexit, and that Britain can still do competence, unity and dignity. When we take ourselves more seriously, we can ask the world to take our global aspirations seriously.

Secondly, to avoid further polarisation of the badly fractured UK political debate. At times in recent years, UK politics has resembled a circular firing squad. There will be anxiety that Trump will throw in an extra grenade. His language on race, gender, or the UK’s Commonwealth partners would get him fired from any British cabinet. So his hosts will be hoping he can keep it more presidential, and that any meeting with non-government leaders — such as Brexit figurehead Nigel Farage — will be away from the cameras. Good luck with that.

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Thirdly, to head off the worst of attacks on the US-created but now US-orphaned international system. Brexit or no Brexit, the UK’s geopolitical strategy depends on responsible US leadership on the world stage rather than pinball diplomacy and game-show unpredictability. UK interests are in the patient negotiations needed to avoid climate, trade and migration crises, and the putting out rather than starting of fires in the Middle East. Expectations will not be high, and Trump has regularly set out to prove his critics right. But efforts are underway to salvage some warm presidential words for NATO at least.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump needs three different things.

Firstly, association with UK royalty. He will be hoping that the adjustments to usual protocol are not interpreted as a slight. And that the photos are good.

Secondly, to show that his brand of politics is winning. Though no tweet has yet issued to confirm it, he is presumably gleeful at the success of the Brexit Party and its allies in European elections. He will take energy from what he sees as an insurgent Trumpian rejection of the status quo. Yet his more observant advisers will warn him that mainstream UK values, including among Brexiteers, are not Trumpian. In particular, the freedom to trade, move, think and innovate is the wedge that splits the libertarian Brexiters from isolationist Brexiters.

Thirdly, to keep attention away from the political challenges he is facing in the US. This depends mainly on the first two.

The challenge for those putting the finishing touches to the plans is that, for the British hosts, the visit needs to run like clockwork. And for Trump, it needs to surprise.

Expect those who are organising those preparations to focus as much as possible on the overlap of objectives (future trade prospects, and sober, shared messages on global political challenges such as North Korea); to manage as far as possible the known unknowns; and to scuttle through it all as quickly as possible, before a far more important moment: marking with world leaders the sacrifice that a previous generation made on D-Day to protect us from tyranny, intolerance and extremism.

In all of this, many Brits will take comfort that, in her 67 years on the throne, the Queen has met 10 US presidents: she has this covered. She is too much of a pro to let on for a moment what she thinks of this particular president, but some will speculate that she would not seek out his company under other circumstances.

Donald Trump will be received in the UK with dignity, civility and respect for the office he holds, for the American people, for shared values and history, and for a special relationship that is durable enough to withstand good and bad times. He has enough gold at home.

Tom Fletcher CMG is a Visiting Professor at NYU, former UK ambassador and No 10 adviser, and the author of ‘The Naked Diplomat’

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