Donald Trump’s visit to the UK will be a test for Theresa May during her last days as prime minister – but it will also offer whoever steps into her shoes a view into how to deal with the US president.
The London-Washington “special relationship” has certainly cooled with Trump in the White House, the major issue being that the president’s pushing of an “America First” agenda has pushed against the UK’s preference for international diplomacy and multilateral treaties.
The new direction in US policy has meant London has had to distance itself from Washington over the Paris climate accords and the nuclear deal with Iran, with Trump rejecting both.
Trump wants support for these positions, but the incoming prime minister will know that disrupting the world order in that way will do the UK more harm than good. The new Downing Street incumbent will have to learn to pick their battles, with a quietly hard line from UK diplomats likely to continue to be the way forward.
Speaking out publicly in a way May has not done will be tempting for the new PM, and will certainly win international fans. Indeed, Trump has repeatedly sought to undercut May, especially over Brexit, whatever the UK position has been. Trump sees Brexit as part of the same populist landscape that also led to his win, and if he believes it is in his self-interest, and appeals to his supporter base, he will hit out at anyone without much thought for the consequences.
That will not stop, and the new PM may decide that in standing up to Trump in areas such as Middle East policy Britain can withstand some potentially embarrassing tweets from the president if it means not eroding the UK’s world standing.
However, the more likely scenario is that Downing Street will grit its teeth and bear with the Trump administration in the same way it has up until now.
While not easy to do, Trump’s passion for a good photo opportunity can help. If the new PM keeps up with the optics of the “special relationship” such as state dinners, joint press conferences etc, the president may be placated. It is these set-pieces that Trump craves and Japan is at least one nation that has recognised this, allowing them to keep Trump on side.
Trump will always want more from the “special relationship” but the UK must be sure not to tip the balance too far, as it could cost them opportunities with other allies.
May is in a position to test the boundaries of the relationship. The chances of any serious diplomatic moves during Trump’s trip are virtually nil given where we are in the outgoing prime minister’s tenure and now would be the perfect opportunity for some frank talk on issues like Syria, Iran and climate change.
Her successor would no doubt thank her, but I wouldn’t hold my breath over it happening.
Trade is the key. Trump knows that the EU is too big a trading entity to take on, so he will likely want to use a deal with the UK to try and crack Europe’s opposition to US regulatory standards. This will be easier with a Conservative who backs a no-deal Brexit, such as Trump’s friend Boris Johnson, but could prove trickier if a centrist wins.
But beyond Brexit, there is China. The UK sees Beijing as an important trading partner in a post-withdrawal world, setting them at odds with the Trump administration.
Britain can ill-afford to get involved with the trade war that Trump appears happy to deal in – let alone the potential problems raised by Washington over national security – and this will be a major issue for the new PM.
Trump wants support, and a platform to show off, but the new Tory leader should be careful about giving him too much of either.
The “special relationship” needs to be built on mutual respect – whether Trump wants to give it or not. The way to ensure its survival is not to shrink under the US president’s gaze.
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