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President Trump will present an enormous challenge for the UK-US ‘Special Relationship’

Donald Trump’s election as US President poses uncomfortable questions about the future of the UK-US ‘Special Relationship’. Tim Oliver writes that despite similarities in Brexit and the politics of Trump’s rise, and the Lazarus quality of the relationship to return to life after being pronounced dead, Trump presents so many unknowns that the core of the relationship could be strained as never before.

Regardless of whether or not Donald Trump had won the US presidential election, his rise had already left an indelible mark on US politics, and on views of the US in Britain and around the world. His victory means those views will now have to be turned into actual policies towards a president about whom many in Britain feel deeply uneasy.

British views of Trump can be a mix of selective praise and widespread horror. He has been criticised and attacked by British political leaders from the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, to the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. A petition of over half a million signatures led Parliament to debate (and reject) banning Trump from entering the UK. Yet he has also drawn the support of politicians such as UKIP leader Nigel Farage and polling showed support in Britain for his plan to ban Muslims from entering the US. What then might President Trump actually mean for UK-US relations?

We can look at the possible implications for the relationship in three areas. First, how similar is support for Trump to the political trends in Britain and Europe such as those that drove Brexit, and would they form the basis for cooperation? Second, what could President Trump mean for the core – largely defence related – of the UK-US relationship that is usually protected from the vagaries of presidential politics? In turn, where might that leave a UK that since 1945 has built its global position on trying to balance itself between the USA and Europe? Finally, given the importance often attached to prime minister-president relations, what might a President Trump mean for Prime Minister Theresa May?

Europe, Brexit and Trump

The US presidential election showed American politics grappling with the same tensions and frustrations found in Britain and across the rest of Europe. These tensions surround an often overlooked working class and a pressured middle class who have growing frustrations over the political and economic status quo. Their frustrations are directed at globalisation, elite politics, austerity, fears about threats to identities, and immigration. Britain’s vote for Brexit was itself seen as a pointer to the growing power of these frustrations. The election of Trump has taken it to a global level.

Will a Trump Presidency seek common purpose with Britain and other European allies to find solutions? Trump’s campaign rhetoric points instead to a president who believes in turning the US inwards. Instead of finding common purpose, the two sides of the Atlantic may find they drive themselves further apart. That would pose a quandary for a post-Brexit Britain and its leaders who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU so it could instead forge new global trading links. Trump has hinted at being open to a trade deal with a UK outside the EU. That’s a position that contrasts with his overall protectionist stance. While he might leave an opening for the UK, his overall approach risks inflicting much larger damage on the wider open global trading system of which Britain remains a committed member. Britain’s hopes of securing global trade deals depend upon the rest of the world being open to such approaches. President Trump helps push us all towards a world that isn’t like that.

‘The’ Special Relationship

If Britain can expect an exemption from President Trump’s protectionism, then does that not point to the success and strength of the UK-US ‘special relationship’? As always when discussing the ‘special relationship’ we need to remember that for both sides it is ‘a’ special relationship rather than ‘the’ special relationship. Both London and Washington D.C. have other special relationships, such as with Israel for the USA or with Ireland for the UK. Arguably, the most important relationships – and therefore special in their own ways – for either side are the ones they face the most difficult but important questions over: US-China and UK-EU.

Nevertheless, the UK-US relationship is special due to links in three core areas: nuclear weapons, intelligence and Special Forces. Culture, politics, economic considerations and so forth also make it ‘special,’ but it is these three areas that are protected from the vagaries of presidential and prime ministerial politics. They form the basis on which the UK and US trust each other in ways they don’t trust others, and trust is a vital variable in any relationship.

This core could be tested to the limit or be left sour by dealing with President Trump because of the degree of distrust and unease in Her Majesty’s Government and the wider UK political arena at cooperating with a country soon to be headed by an erratic president who appears willing to do and say anything when it comes to torture, bombing, and relations with authoritarian states. Granted, the UK’s record on torture, bombing and relations with authoritarian states is nothing to be proud of. But the extremes to which Trump appears prepared to push these areas, at least in public, makes for uncomfortable politics for any UK government already struggling with allegations of complicity in torture with the USA, where the public is sceptical of involvement in overseas conflicts, and where relations with authoritarian states such as Russia remain tense, despite hopes of easing relations.

That leaves the British government facing three difficult questions. First, does it remain close to the USA in the hope it can be a candid friend to help smooth what could be a highly unpredictable four (possibly eight) years of a Trump presidency? In doing so it would try to protect the core of the relationship, which would ease relations with the next president. If chosen, this approach would reflect a long-standing desire by British decision makers to shape US power as a means to the end of enhancing British power. They would also be doing so in the hope that Britain – of all the US’ allies – can shape a President Trump in the interests of the wider Western world. Given Trump’s isolationist and protectionist outlook, it must be asked whether he would care that much about Britain’s efforts.

Second, if close relations are not an option, then the UK government could limit relations with the USA in the military and intelligence communities. This would strike at the core of the relationship in ways we have never seen before. It would also deprive Britain of access to information and capabilities which both it and other European countries depend upon. Given the perilous state of European defence capabilities, the British government and others across the continent would be wary of making moves that increase the likelihood of US disengagement from Europe’s security.

Finally, President Trump will pose a dilemma for Britain’s overall strategic outlook. Britain’s vote to leave the EU has highlighted a desire by some in the UK to play an enhanced global role, a role that would in part depend on cooperating with the USA. Yet in President Trump the UK now finds itself stuck between a Trump rock and a Brexit hard place. Does this mean Britain will have to find a third way between the US and Europe? Some may seek this and point to relations with other English-speaking nations such as Canada or Australia as ways forward. On their own, however, they are inadequate substitutes for the scale of existing economic and security relations which root Britain firmly into a transatlantic community.

Theresa May and a Known Unknown President

Close relations between presidents and prime ministers have often personified UK-US relations. Reagan-Thatcher and Blair-Clinton/Bush being some recent examples. What can Theresa May or any other future British prime minister expect to find when dealing with President Trump? As with any president, there are risks and opportunities involved. With Trump, however, there are so many unknowns that Donald Rumsfeld’s famous albeit verbose quote about risk seems apt.

‘There are known knowns; there are things we know we know.’ For Theresa May this would have been a Clinton presidency. UK-US relations would, as always, have faced some difficult moments. Clinton would have been more hawkish than some in Britain and Europe expect. She would have been chased by long-standing allegations of corruption. But compared to Trump she would have operated within the existing parameters of transatlantic relations and broader US foreign policy.

‘We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.’ That will be a Trump presidency, a man about which the world – and in all likelihood even the UK Government – still know so little about. With President Trump there are things we know remain hidden from us. Examples include his tax affairs, connections to Russia, allegations of sexual misbehaviour, plans for running his companies while he is in the Oval Office, the next recording to emerge of him bragging about things, his likely working relationship with the US military. We also know little about who will actually staff his administration or how the wider Republican Party elite will cope with him being in the White House.

‘There are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.’ As the most erratic candidate ever elected to the presidency in the modern era, the biggest unknown for Theresa May and other world leaders is what President Trump might say or do next. His erratic behaviour and incoherent ideas have led many to worry he poses a real danger to the US republic itself. He boasted about his attempts to stay on script in the final few days of the campaign, as if this is something we should welcome rather than expect from a man who will soon command the most powerful military force humanity has ever known. Granted, what he will and will not be able to get away with – such as in trade protectionism – will be shaped by the checks and balances of the US system of government, and so the Republican party’s leadership will have a say over what he can do. But it’s easy to foresee many press conferences and meetings with President Trump where the British prime minister and officials are left disgusted, aghast and struggling to explain to themselves, let alone Britain’s parliament, public and allies, why relations with the USA are worth maintaining.

About the author: Dr. Tim Oliver is a Dahrendorf Postdoctoral Fellow working on Europe-North American relations. Tim’s research interests focus on transatlantic relations, European geopolitics, British-European relations, British government and politics, and the UK’s foreign, security and defence policies.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.