Can Trump and May make ‘special relationship’ great again?
Donald Trump makes his first presidential trip to the United Kingdom this week, from Thursday to Sunday, in the face of what are likely to be significant public protests. In these controversial circumstances, the tour has been scaled back from the originally planned state visit, but it could still help breathe new life into the long-standing “special relationship.”
Trump, whose mother was born in Scotland (where the US president will spend the weekend), appears to value the close historical ties between the two states, and May was the first world leader to meet with him last year after he was sworn into office. At that time, Trump called May his “Maggie,” drawing comparisons with the political bond that was forged between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
Despite the many political differences between Trump and May — which on the face of it are significantly larger than those between Reagan and Thatcher — both leaders welcome a constructive partnership that builds on the traditional ties between the two nations, which are founded on demographics, religion, culture, law, politics and economics. For May, the rekindling of this special relationship, in a post-Brexit context, would potentially flesh out her aspirations for a new “global Britain,” while Trump’s credentials as a leader on the world stage would be burnished.
Yet a key challenge for May has been the significant public opposition to the Trump trip. So much so that the US president’s tour will be largely kept away from demonstrations in London and focus instead on a business dinner at Blenheim Palace (Winston Churchill’s birthplace); a working session with May at Chequers (the countryside home of the UK prime minister); and a visit to see Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle.
Theresa May should not overestimate UK’s ability to shape US power, nor be blind to the fact that Trump may ultimately care little for UK interests.
A key focus for discussions will be the potential US-UK trade deal. If May could secure such a deal it would represent a significant win in her battle to show that the UK can swiftly secure post-Brexit trade deals with key economic partners outside of the EU. This could also be a boon for Trump, given that he is being criticized in many quarters as having the hallmarks of an anti-globalization, protectionist president.
There are key areas ripe for agreement here, including lowering or eliminating tariffs on goods. Equally, however, potential icebergs lie on the horizon, not least given the president’s commitment to “America first.”
Specific areas of potential disagreement on the trade front include the prospect that harmonizing financial regulations between the two countries, with the international dominance of Wall Street and the City of London, will not necessarily be straightforward. Meanwhile, securing agreement in other sectors, including agriculture, where there are also divergences of views and strong interest groups, will not be easy either.
Another key agenda item will be security and defense, which has long been at the core of the special relationship, given the very close partnership between the two nations in the post-war era in areas like intelligence. So, while this is a terrain in which there will be much agreement, including over the need to continue the counterterrorism battle against Daesh, tensions could surface, including over Russia.
Trump has openly courted President Vladimir Putin, who he is meeting in Helsinki on Monday. May will be keen to find out Trump’s real bottom lines on Russia and, in the words of Thatcher, seek to “stiffen his spine” against what she perceives as the real and present Russian security threat.
She will remind Trump of the recent incident in southwest England that saw the alleged Russian attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter. May is a strong defender of NATO and confirmed that the UK would, under its Article 5 responsibilities in that organization, come to the aid of any Eastern European countries attacked by Moscow — an issue that Trump has so far given less clear-cut answers to.
Part of the reason for May’s enquiry in this area relates to the mixed messages coming from Trump and his senior team since he assumed the presidency. On the one hand, he appears to believe Russia is not a serious threat to the US and that there is scope for rapprochement. Specifically, he perceives there are common interests over issues such as combating terrorism.
Yet, US Defense Secretary James Mattis has said that “Russia is raising grave concerns on several fronts,” including trying to “break the Northern Atlantic alliance (NATO)... which needs integrated steps — diplomatic, economic, military and the alliance steps... to defend ourselves where we must.” Former secretary of State Rex Tillerson was also forceful in his criticism of Russia.
Given the multiple uncertainties ahead in the Trump presidency, May is likely to seek to play the role of a trusted, albeit candid, friend in a bid to get close to the president to try and make the relationship work as smoothly as possible. This may provide some protections for bilateral relations in what could be a rocky few years to come, even if strong personal chemistry continues to fail to take root between the two leaders.
However, while this may be a sensible strategy, at least initially, it is not without risk, especially given Trump’s unpredictability and polarized standing in UK and international opinion. While seeking the potential upside in the new relationship, including the possibility of a trade deal, May would be wise not to overestimate the UK’s ability to shape US power, nor be blind to the fact that Trump’s “America first” outlook may ultimately care little for core UK interests.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics