Clowns to the left of her, jokers to the right – who’d be Theresa May right now? No sooner had her much-trailed trip to the US ended, a trip which was pregnant with more significance than usual thanks to the Government’s need for new trading links as we leave the EU, than all that careful positioning and diplomatic language was rendered redundant by the White House’s enactment of a travel ban for citizens from several Muslim majority countries. For once, we were all actually hoping that the US President turned out to be a typical politician who didn’t intend to keep his exaggerated campaign pledges. For once, horrifyingly, it seems he intends to keep them all.
It appears that, at least until Friday night, Number 10 hadn’t worked out exactly what kind of President Donald Trump appears to be. The usual rules of engagement when dealing with questions about a strategically important but somewhat unsavoury ally were wheeled out. There was May, stressing the benefits of bilateral cooperation, coming up with cute euphemisms for the disagreements, pretending to have raised these issues ‘fully and frankly’ in private and, if in doubt, falling back on the line that it’s just an internal matter and not one for us to comment on. You imagine that the Foreign Office has a briefing note in a drawer somewhere with all of this summarised for new ministers – you also imagine that the mandarins, used to digging this stuff out for visits to China or the Saudis, never thought they’d be deploying it for the other half of the ‘special relationship.’
But then, we live in interesting times. If the past weekend has shown us anything, it’s that the international order in which all of those cute Foreign Office lines-to-take make sense, an order in which the United States acted as a guarantor, is torn to shreds – if not fatally wounded, then at least in critical condition. If, as appears to be the case, the White House is currently directing federal agencies to ignore a federal court ruling, then in the space of ten days the US has gone from the ‘shining city on a hill’ of the rules-based international order to the breakdown of the rule of law. The implications of this for American democracy are extremely alarming and have been covered better by many people more qualified than me, so I won’t dwell on them here, other than to add my voice to the chorus of condemnation of the regime’s authoritarian tactics and contempt for the constitution.
From safely across the Atlantic, a less immediate but equally pressing question must be posed – how does Britain react to the capricious, venal and malignant presence now occupying the highest seat of power in the world’s most important democracy? Judging from the Prime Minister’s muted statement over the weekend and Boris Johnson’s untrammelled display of diplomatic hedging in the Commons on Monday, it seems Downing Street has settled on salvaging as much ‘business as usual’ from this ungodly mess as it can. You can understand the impulse – trapped in a Brexit mess of its own making, the Government is stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea with its need for a trade deal and a renewed ‘Atlantic bridge’ as a counterweight to our diminishing continental ties. The trouble here is that, in the face of near-universal international outrage and condemnation of the US regime, and in the face of a President whose actions have inside a fortnight crossed the line from merely unconscionable to outright illegal, this stance looks at best out-of-touch and at worst supine, spineless and alarmingly complacent. It’s worth reminding the Prime Minister that one of her predecessors played the ‘internal affairs of another sovereign state’ card to avoid condemning Kristallnacht. Simply put, Theresa May’s new ‘global Britain’ will find few friends if it allows itself to be cast, with some fairness, as the servile lapdog of an America fast descending into ugly authoritarianism.
So, how should we respond to President Trump, a man with the potential to be the biggest threat to the rules-based international order, underpinned by the West, since 1945? First, we must accept that whilst we cannot ignore the US, ‘business as usual’ cannot stand as long as the US is rejecting the way that business is done. We will negotiate a trade deal, yes, and more besides, but the hand-in-glove nature of the ‘special relationship’ must be put into abeyance while the US continues to undermine the shared values which have characterised that partnership for over 70 years. At the least, the Government must rethink its hasty decision to endorse Trump with a state visit.
Secondly, we must resist the urge to succumb to short-termism – assuming that this will all be over in four years. Trump may well win re-election and, beyond that, shape the USA for a generation. In the face of this, pretending that the US remains ‘a great democracy,’ as Boris Johnson repeated like a mantra on Monday evening, while it is moving ahead with plans to build border walls, deport untold thousands and undermine the basis of constitutional government, or that there is likely to be an immediate reset upon the regime’s departure, seems unduly optimistic.
Thirdly, we must look beyond America. At a time when our links with Europe are in self-imposed decline, the American partnership may seem a comforting point of foreign policy continuity – Trump has ended that notion, at least for now. The need to secure a Brexit arrangement that doesn’t alienate our European partners – that preserves the highest cooperation on defence and security, positive economic relations and underlines our mutual commitment to open, liberal and democratic values – is now paramount. So too is a re-engagement with Commonwealth countries – with Canada, who gave the Prime Minister an early lesson in how to react to the US regime this weekend, and also with India, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand and the African nations. This engagement will mean trade, with a network representing some 17% of global GDP, but also a strengthening of social and political ties. Building bridges with the emerging economies of Central and South America – most notably Mexico and Brazil – should also be a priority.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, we must remember that our foreign policy has never been simply a scramble to secure free trade areas and low import tariffs. Debasing ourselves at the feet of the US, while it is being ruled by a man like Donald Trump, may secure Britain a trade deal but at the cost of our moral legitimacy. Now more than ever is the time to reaffirm that Britain’s friendship is not easily won – it is incumbent on tolerance, democracy, reason, respect for the rule of law, human rights and decency. We must never again be slow, or muted, in our condemnation of acts which fly in the face of those values as the Government was this weekend. Instead, we must recognise that we will have more leverage over the regime in Washington if we remain a principled and independent partner, willing to act in our own interest where our interests diverge, than we will have as a muted servant desperate for attention with no other alliances to turn to.
All of this is daunting, but it can be done. Nobody should be in any doubt about the clear and present danger posed by the regime currently in office in the US, if it continues on the path it has taken in its first week in office, not only to America but to all of our shared values across the world. Social democracy is in crisis, and that crisis requires a new and bold approach, a new internationalism arrayed against the forces of isolation and fear. This is not a time for half measures, business as usual or quietly praying for it all to be over soon. This is a time for leadership, and Labour should be arguing for Britain to take that role as we enter the age of Trump.