It is appropriate that the 45th President of the United States has come to Britain this week on a working visit rather than the state visit that was originally intended by Theresa May. Donald Trump’s habit of expressing his frank and impolite thoughts through early morning tweets is undiplomatic and demeaning to his office.
It is hard to imagine another leader of a western democracy taking the opportunity to undermine a Prime Minister shortly before arriving in Britain, as Trump did this week by describing the country as being ‘in turmoil’. He then appeared to take sides with Boris Johnson just after the former foreign secretary had resigned in protest at Mrs May’s attempt to unite the cabinet on a shared vision of Brexit.
Yet for all his bluster and offensiveness, Trump often has a point. Take, for example, what he tweeted on Tuesday, shortly before arriving at the Nato summit in Brussels: ‘The European Union makes it impossible for our farmers and workers and companies to do business in Europe (US has a $151 billion trade deficit), and then they want us to happily defend them through Nato, and nicely pay for it. Just doesn’t work!’
It is hard to fault this analysis. The EU has spent much of the past few weeks complaining bitterly about Trump’s shameless declaration of a trade war, the first shots of which have been fired through tariffs on steel and aluminium. Yet at the same time it has overlooked the trade war which it has been waging against the outside world for decades on agricultural products. The EU’s protectionism of its farmers, expressed through punitive tariffs as well as regulatory barriers such as scientifically unjustified bans on anything from GM foods to chicken washed in chlorine, has been a huge impediment to the growth of global trade.
This magazine has been a staunch advocate of free trade since the time of the Corn Laws. The tariffs on steel and aluminium imposed by Trump make no more sense than those imposed by George Bush in 2002. They are not just hurtful to us but to the US economy as well. A trade body representing US steel-consuming industries claimed that the 2002 tariffs had cost 200,000 jobs — a greater number than were employed by the American steel industry at the time. Yet from what we now know of Trump’s modus operandi, his trade war might just prove to be the jolt which forces open EU food markets and so promotes freer trade in the longer term.
Trump is, above all else, a disruptor. He says the things which other US presidents have failed to say — and in doing so opens avenues of possibility which others have failed to open. Look how quickly his threats against Kim Jong-un turned into constructive engagement. It remains to be seen just what this will lead to, but it’s hard to doubt that Trump has made progress possible.
It’s also right for Trump to raise the stakes on the issue of how much Nato members are contributing to the alliance. It is a blunt fact that 24 out of 29 Nato members are ratting on the agreement that they should spend at least 2 per cent of GDP on defence. Those countries are attempting to shelter beneath the US military umbrella while refusing to stick to the rules they agreed. Trump’s suggestion that Nato might have become ‘redundant’ might be the shock tactic which persuades Nato members to rectify the situation.
It was undiplomatic, but not wrong, for Trump to have described Britain as a country ‘in turmoil’ this week. How else could you describe the government’s failure even to agree a negotiating position on Brexit, let alone persuade the EU to accept it? To call a meeting, announce that agreement had been reached and then suffer the resignations of two cabinet ministers might be seen as a price worth paying if Mrs May had discovered a route for a successful Brexit. But as James Forsyth observes, her plan stands every chance of being rejected by her party, and EU leaders have started to question whether Brexit will happen at all. The government could not have signalled its weakness more clearly.
Boris Johnson was recently heard wondering how much better Brexit would have gone had Donald Trump been in charge of the process. He had a point. True, Trump would have appalled EU leaders even more than they are already appalled by him. Yet after a rich exchange of insults, business would have been done. He would probably have gone for a ‘no deal’ Brexit from the get-go, making all the necessary preparations, and said that Britain was open to offers of a free-trade deal if the EU wanted one. By contrast, Mrs May has ceded power to Europe at almost every turn. Her memoirs, if they are ever written, could be called ‘The Art of a Bad Deal’.
Donald Trump’s way of doing things is not pretty or edifying. It might not always work and it brings huge risks. But too many of his critics simply don’t understand him or his appeal to US voters. He was elected not in spite of his abrasive nature but because of it. US voters wanted someone to stir up the complacency of their political establishment — in domestic and foreign affairs — and that is exactly what they got. It’s a pity our own leaders do not have a similarly disruptive streak in them.