Imagine if Donald Trump declared that Islam had ‘no place’ in his country, or proposed banning the burqa ‘wherever legally possible’. There wouldn’t be enough space in Trafalgar Square for all the protestors. British ministers would be forced to the Commons to make clear their disagreement with the President of the United States. And there would be millions more signatures on the petition demanding that his state visit invitation be rescinded.
The Trump White House, of course, hasn’t said either of these things. They are the on-the-record positions of two heads of governments in the EU. Robert Fico, prime minister of Slovakia, has declared that Islam has no place in his country, while Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, wants the burqa banned wherever possible. It is a striking feature of British politics that we care more about statements by the US President than those of the leaders of the countries with whom we have been in ‘ever closer union’ for 40-odd years.
For reasons of culture, history and language, Britain follows the politics of the US more closely than that of any other country. American politics quickly becomes Westminster politics. That, in combination with America’s security role, often makes this alliance a particularly problematic one in political terms for British prime ministers.
For the past eight years, the UK government has been shielded from protest by Barack Obama’s aura. Shortly before the 2012 presidential election, a senior figure in the British intelligence community was asked who he wanted to win. He said he was praying for Obama: if Mitt Romney won and simply continued Obama’s drone strikes, there would be tens of thousands demonstrating in London and questions asked in Parliament about how exactly the UK was assisting.
But now Theresa May has to contend with the most difficult American president since the establishment of the US-UK security alliance. Republican presidents haven’t tended to go down well in Britain in recent decades. But Trump is in a different league: he actively wants to pick fights and offend liberal sensitivities. The shock with which his domestic opponents and foreign leaders have reacted to his refugee ban was part of the plan. You can take Trump out of The Apprentice, but you can’t take The Apprentice out of Trump.
And yet Trump offers opportunities for Britain. He is a Brexit man who wants to see us succeed outside the EU as part of a return to a nation-state-based international order. He has, as European Council president Donald Tusk laments, junked 70 years of US support for European integration. Despite his protectionist rhetoric, he is keen on a US-UK free trade deal. What squares the circle between his rhetoric and such a deal is that trade with the UK would not, like trade with China or Mexico, be seen as a threat to employment in the old manufacturing states that won him the election. As an influential figure in the British government told me, with the Trump team, ‘Everything should be seen through the prism of jobs, jobs, jobs.’
Brexit has undoubtedly made the relationship with Washington more important for Britain. It was the Trump team’s anger that led to Theresa May attacking Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, for his criticisms of the Israeli government in December, just days after Britain had voted for a UN resolution highly critical of Israel (and the US had abstained).
But even without Brexit, Downing Street would have had to get close to President Trump. Any European government would feel the same obligation. According to Der Spiegel, Merkel’s aides told the Trump team that she was ready to come to Washington as soon as they wanted, only to receive no reply.
The reason why Berlin, as well as London, wants to face-to-face meetings with Trump is that Europe still relies on the American security guarantee represented by Nato. When Trump talks about Nato being ‘obsolete’, he encourages Vladimir Putin to test western resolve. No UK prime minister could afford not to try to correct the course of an American president who was undermining Nato. And May does appear to have had some early success on this front: in their press conference, he did not dissent when she said that he backed the alliance 100 per cent.
So, how do you deal with an ally like Donald? The key is hard-headed realism about who he is, how he works and where he is open to influence. As Boris Johnson briefed Tory MPs last week, it is crucial to remember that the Trump team see themselves as ripping up a failed old order. They want to know how things have always been done, and then do something else. Appeals to precedent or the liberal post-war order will only persuade them to be more radical; arguments must be framed in terms of US national interest.
The Trump administration is run from the centre, and by a small group of people. If you want to influence it, you have to go through them. I understand that Kim Darroch, the British ambassador, has told ministers that they must involve themselves if they want something done; relying on bureaucratic channels doesn’t really work. The embassy had notably little success at the weekend in trying to establish what the Trump visa ban meant for UK dual citizens; a phone call from Boris Johnson to Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, quickly resolved that issue.
Then there is Trump himself. All presidents are vain to some degree, but he does seem particularly status-conscious: much of his anger at the US media comes from his sense that he is not been given sufficient credit for his achievements. That’s why the government thought the pomp of a state visit, with a royal audience, was the quickest way to appeal to him. But the tightrope the government must walk is flattering his vanity, without looking like it is blind to his faults.
If Theresa May can help broker an arrangement where Nato’s European members all spend at least 2 per cent of GDP on defence and Trump recommits the US to the alliance, she will have both bolstered the security of the West and made a constructive Brexit deal more likely. If she can follow through with real progress on a broad US-UK trade deal, then she will have shown herself to be much more than an apprentice statesman.