Christopher Meyer

How Britain should handle a Trump visit, by the former ambassador to Washington

How Britain should handle a Trump visit, by the former ambassador to Washington
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For reasons I find hard to fathom the French did not come out in force to riot against the recent visit of President Trump to France. Normally the mildest provocation has them pouring into the streets to do battle with the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité, the CRS, notorious for their brutal handling of demonstrators. My wife, half-French herself, suggested that the quiescence of the French public reflected respect for Bastille Day, which President Macron had invited Trump to celebrate. I pooh-poohed that on the grounds that the storming of the Bastille in 1789 marked the beginning of the venerable French tradition of public rioting and was if anything a spur to violent protest against Trump. Perhaps the more likely explanation was the start of the French summer holidays or the exhaustion of the French contingent at the G20 riots in Hamburg a few days previously. Or the French were just pleased to score one over the rosbifs and get Trump to Paris before London and to do it in style.

Meantime, in contrast to Macron’s bold panache, we British are tying ourselves in knots over Trump’s state visit to the UK, for which no date has been set. The concerns are legion. Two million people have signed a petition calling for the state visit to be downgraded to an official visit, viz. no travelling down the Mall in an open coach with Her Majesty, escorted by the Household Cavalry, no over-night at Buckingham Palace, no speech to a joint session of parliament and so on. There is great concern that Trump might embarrass The Queen in some way. But, with all due respect to Her Majesty, he is unlikely to tell her that she is in great shape as brazenly as he did Madame Macron.

Of course, if Trump does not get the pomp and ceremony he craves, most of his incentive for coming to Britain vanishes. He has apparently sought assurances that he will be well received by the British press and people: otherwise he won’t come. But, those are assurances that cannot be offered. Given the bilious anti-Americanism of a large chunk of British public opinion, he will more likely be confronted with the kind of large-scale, violent street protests that failed to erupt in Paris a fortnight ago.

The problem is that The Queen was prevailed upon to issue the invitation before the full Grand Guignol of Trump had been revealed; and Trump accepted it with alacrity. Now, each side of the Atlantic is stuck with it. I can think of no instance in the history of UK/US relations of such an invitation being withdrawn or the recipient changing his mind about accepting.

There is an idea doing the rounds that one way out of the predicament is to invite Trump to the UK on a low-key official visit, shorn of ceremony, later this year; see how that goes; and then decide whether to push ahead with a state visit in 2018. The notion that a short official visit, with minimal public exposure, can serve as a “dummy run” for a full-blown state visit, replete with public ceremony, is as daft as a brush. There is no comparison between the two types of visit. The nearest parallel in my lifetime is George W. Bush, a highly unpopular president in the UK because of the Iraq war, though no wayward eccentric in the Trump mould. He paid two official visits to the UK in 2001 and 2003, the latter to Northern Ireland, both largely without incident. As dummy runs they were useless: Bush’s state visit, later in 2003, was marked by huge protests in London.

I have no idea whether our ambassador in Washington, the estimable Sir Kim Darroch, was consulted about the state visit, announced by Theresa May during her trip to Washington soon after Trump’s inauguration. I think that I would have advised London to wait a bit. Even without the benefit of hindsight, it was already clear that a visit at this level could prove counter-productive. Bush did not give a damn about protesters, but the thin-skinned Trump is something else.

I am also pretty sure that I would have advised the prime minister to come to Washington as soon as possible, just as Tony Blair did (for better or worse) a month after Bush’s inauguration in 2001. This has nothing to do with the wispy delusions of the “Special Relationship”. It has everything to do with the hard interests of realpolitik. Theresa May has been wrongly criticised for racing across the Atlantic in poodleish fashion to meet Trump. The vast concentration of diverse British interests invested in the relationship with America, to which we must now add the need for a free trade agreement after Brexit, made a very early meeting with the new president of the United States indispensable. May was able to put in a number of early fixes – on NATO, free trade, Russia and so forth - like banderillas in a bull’s neck.

It is important to distinguish between the office of the US presidency and the individual occupying the White House. We have to try to get past the personality of Trump - no easy thing - to the office and nation which he represents. He is the latest, albeit most extreme, iteration of something we have repeatedly seen since 1945. Personal and political relationships between prime ministers and presidents have for 70 years been marked more by their volatility than their stability. Attlee and Truman, Eden and Eisenhower, Wilson and Johnson, Major and Clinton – difficult, cranky relationships. Macmillan and Kennedy, Thatcher and Reagan, Blair and Clinton, Blair and Bush – close, friendly relationships. Yet, throughout this period, whatever the turbulence above the waterline, below it there has been a steady, relentless accretion of British-American mutual interests such that in some areas like foreign direct investment they are without rival in any other bilateral relationship.

If I were once again sitting in the ambassador’s office in Washington, my great fear would be that a Trump state visit anytime in the foreseeable future would be so calamitous in the face of public, parliamentary and press protest that it would do serious damage above and below the waterline of British/American relations. We should forget about “dummy runs” and the like. By all means let a thousand working visits bloom, from the president downwards. But, as to a state visit, masterly inaction should be the order of the day. It would be a blessed relief to all concerned in Washington and London. 

Sir Christopher Meyer is a former British ambassador to the US and Germany.