May’s quandary in dealing with Trump
Craven vassal or serious friend and ally? This question has often haunted visiting British prime ministers as they touch down in Washington to see a new president. With Barack Obama, the fears were that he was anti-British, bitter at British atrocities in Kenya, including against his grandfather.
How would Tony Blair transition from dealing with his pal Bill Clinton to a very different president in George W. Bush? Margaret Thatcher secured a lasting friendship with Ronald Reagan, whom she called “the second most important man in my life.” No incoming president has appeared quite so radioactive as Donald Trump, and few British prime ministers less suited to handle him as Theresa May.
A newbie on the international stage and largely untested at international power summits, May rushed to pay homage at the court of King Donald, proud to be the first foreign leader in Washington after regime change. Arch-Atlanticist Blair did not arrive in Washington until a month after Bush’s inauguration, as did Thatcher in visiting Reagan. How would a vicar’s daughter engage with one of the brashest, most unpredictable of world leaders?
Asked about this clash of personalities, May proclaimed: “Sometimes opposites attract” — somewhat less clumsy than Bush’s quip that he and Blair shared the same toothpaste. Otherwise, May was cooing in praise for Trump and channeled Reagan, mentioning him five times in her keynote speech. Trump would have approved of her tough line on Iran and Daesh.
May was trying to nudge Trump to be more internationalist. She appealed to his ego, claiming that together they could lead the world, surely an ambition he reserves for himself alone. Only on Russia was there a sign that May stood her ground, stating clearly that she could not support the lifting of sanctions. She claimed that Trump was 100 percent behind NATO, something not reiterated directly by Trump himself.
For him, was this not just easy pickings? All he had to do was play the gracious host in public and make some appropriate noises to please this foreign supplicant. He was relaxed in the full knowledge that in this business deal, May did not just want his support but needed it, given the UK’s impending departure from the EU. Desperation hung like a thick shroud over the whole visit, and Trump could smell it.
He may not appreciate it yet, but he needs friends. It is one thing to be isolationist, another to be isolated. His country’s North American neighbors already have fair reason to loathe him, Mexico especially.
Pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has alienated Pacific friends and allies. Undermining the EU has lost him ground in Europe. The Islamic world will be in uproar. Even some Gulf states are now wary after this visa ban and the threat to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Needlessly aggravating Britain may not be in his interest. As Trump loses friends, he may need to cling on to the likes of May.
May can draw on another trump card. The Republican-dominated Congress is largely pro-British, and is in tune with her on areas where she disagrees with Trump, such as NATO, Russia, free trade and even torture. The charm offensive with them may prove fundamental to keeping the relationship “special.” May could be “Trump’s long-lost sister,” said one Congressman, somewhat fancifully.
The hug-him-close strategy with Trump is high risk, even for Britain. Yet within only a few chimes of the clock after their meeting, executive orders to suspend taking in refugees in the US, and to deny visas to Muslims from seven states, produced outrage in the US and across the Islamic world, including among British Muslims.
Challenged at the next summit with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, May ducked the question three times and refused to criticize the moves. A few hours later, Downing Street put out a statement that the government did not agree with the moves, about the weakest form of criticism available to her. At least her Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was more on the mark, tweeting that it was “divisive and wrong to stigmatize because of nationality.”
Following the refugee-program suspension and the visa restrictions on Muslims, May will lose massive support in the UK, her status in Europe such as it is and further afield if she does not stand up to Trump. One of May’s only Conservative Muslim MPs claims to be affected by the ban. Many British citizens may be too.
Other leaders will not be so keen to kneel to Trump. Like most bullies, he will respect strength, something he sees in Putin. The controversial bans may put the brakes on foreign leaders haring it to Trump central, but somehow the world will need to find a way of working with him. As has been shown too clearly, he remains hard to ignore.
For Britain, the May-Trump relationship has served to rip open even further the divides between Europhiles and Atlanticists. Many will be arguing the folly of turning away from Europe for a Trump administration that antagonizes, divides and angers at every turn.
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. He tweets @Doylech.