President-elect Donald J. Trump says that he wants his relationship with British Prime Minister Theresa May to be like that between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, when two kindred political souls briefly rekindled memories of Churchill and Roosevelt. And yes, if the British Establishment could stop making the complete mess it is currently making of Brexit then having an ally in the White House could be very useful. Especially so, if Britain is to face a hostile triumvirate of Germany, the European Commission and the European Parliament.
Furthermore, as Chancellor Merkel recently pointed out, Britain remains a very formidable power indeed, in spite of its ineffectual elite. A top five world economy and military power, currently investing some £178bn/€205bn on new military equipment, including an impressive new power projection maritime/amphibious force. Britain will thus remain Europe’s leading military power (excluding Russia) for some time to come. This matters because it is precisely the kind of power that impresses President-elect Trump. If his campaign revealed anything it is that he loves the theater of power.
All well and good then for Britain? Well, no. Yes, President-elect Trump is an anglophile with a Scottish mother who will probably ensure that any attempt by the EU to bully Britain (‘go ahead, make my day’ as Clint Eastwood once said) will end in failure. However, unlike Maggie and Ronald, Donald and Theresa are hardly kindred spirits.
In November Prime Minister May made a keynote foreign policy speech at the annual gathering of the glitterati (or perhaps that should be ‘illuminati) of the City of London. Flanked by the great, the good, and the quite possibly downright dodgy of London’s world-beating financial district May said that post-Brexit she sees Britain leading the world by example as a champion of free-trade and openness and globalisation.
This reveals not only a profound tension with Donald Trump, but a profound tension with her own stated ambitions to control free-movement and immigration post-Brexit. Yes, she made a nod to The Donald and to the many millions of Britons who voted for Brexit, not least in my own post-industrial and native Yorkshire, by saying government must become much more activist in helping those ‘left behind by globalisation’, whatever that means.
However, whereas Maggie and Ronald were both exponents of Hayekian free market economics, first impressions suggest President-elect Donald will be anything but. Indeed, if anything he is suggesting a protectionist agenda, or perhaps an armed mercantilist agenda whereby other states and blocs of states will only gain tariff-free access to the US market in return for White House-defined reciprocity.
If Maggie May is to forge a new special relationship with the Trumpian White House, and if the May Downing Street can ever get its act together, then her view of a Corbettian free trade model will need to adapt to that of The Donald’s armed mercantilism.
Which brings me to NATO. The true test of British diplomacy under Theresa May will be to keep the US fully engaged in the Atlantic Alliance. Here Britain is starting from a good place. The price of access to the White House will be military burden-sharing. Assuming that the implied bromance between Putin and Trump soon cracks on the rock of strategic reality, America will soon turn again to its traditional allies.
What Trump will demand is proof of commitment. Next May the British will commission HMS Queen Elizabeth, the first of two enormous 72,500 ton aircraft carriers. Together with the new destroyers and submarines currently in service the British will soon be able to field a new power-projection force, political, active proof of Britain’s enduring commitment to transatlantic burden-sharing. Why does this matter? Because President Trump is impressed by only two things – power and wealth. Britain could, if for once London thought strategically, offer at least the impression of power.
So, the relationship between President Trump and Prime Minister May is unlikely to ever be as ‘special’ as that between President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher. However, it will certainly be more ‘special’ than between Trump and any other important European power – the Germans simply do not get Trump.
As for the rest of Europe; those hoping that a Clinton presidency would enable them to punish Britain for Brexit need to think again. If they want the Americans and the British to shoulder the main burden of their own defence they must quickly realise that they cannot disconnect how they treat Britain in the EU, and how Britain and America treat them in NATO.
The message; for the sake of Britain, Europe, and the transatlantic relationship get Brexit resolved as quickly as possible so we can all move and deal with the real dangers in this world, and prevent any possibility of transatlantic decoupling. If not, to paraphrase the Rod Stewart song, we will all make first class fools of each other.
“Oh Maggie, I wish I’d never seen your face,
You made a first class fool out of me,
But I’m as blind as a fool can be,
You stole my heart but I love you anyway”.
Maggie May, by Rod Stewart