As the Trump presidency reaches its 100 day mark, Dr Andrew Moran reflects on the relationship between the UK and the US.
Date: 30 April 2017
The presidency of Donald J Trump has not been without its controversy. As Trump approaches his 100th day in office, there will be much speculation about his presidency and the impact on the people of America. But what has it meant for the UK?
Trump consistently supported Brexit during the 2016 presidential election, even drawing parallels with his own campaign promising “Brexit plus, plus, plus” to his supporters in November. It is a logical conclusion that he would feel sympathy towards the position Britain has found itself in in the wake of the EU referendum and might seek to deepen the special relationship between the US and the UK.
The new President telephoned the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, the day after his victory to invite her to ‘visit as soon as possible.’ But, as many noted, she was not the first state leader he called. In fact, she was at least tenth on the list; Trump had already spoken with the leaders of Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, Israel, Turkey, India, Japan, Australia and South Korea.
Remembering the words of Barack Obama, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron, noted that it was “almost like we are ‘back of the queue’.”
Fast forward to January, Trump is elected as president. During Trump’s first interview with a UK newspaper as President-Elect, Brexiters were heartened when Trump told Leave campaigner, Michael Gove, “I love the UK,’ and promised a ‘quick and fair’ trade deal within weeks of taking office.
Unaware that Britain could not begin complicated negotiations on a deal until after it had exited the EU, Trump asserted: “We’re gonna work very hard to get it done quickly and done properly” adding that it would be “Good for both sides.”
There were early indications that this might not be the case. During a speech to an audience in Cyprus at the end of December, Trump’s incoming Secretary of Commerce, billionaire Wilber Ross, urged Britain’s rivals to exploit the “God-given opportunity” of Brexit to effectively steal business from the UK, raising fears that any deal the US did with Britain in the future might exploit British isolation after its departure from the EU. Ross even suggested that European countries and the US should tempt financial companies to move out of the City of London to Paris, Frankfurt, and elsewhere - something which is now happening.
Ross has gone even further suggesting in an interview in The Wall Street Journal that a trade deal with Britain is a low priority due to a number of complications, not least the upcoming general election and the UK’s need to negotiate a post-Brexit trade agreement with the EU.
More worryingly, Ross said, there were also “bandwidth issues” because Britain had not negotiated a trade deal “in a long, long time.” This followed on from news that Angela Merkel had helped persuade Trump that a US-EU deal should take priority.
It is becoming increasingly clear that Britain is at the “back of the queue” as time goes on and priorities change.
However, the President did remain true to his word by inviting Theresa May to become the first state leader to visit the Trump White House.
At first this was hailed as a coup for the Prime Minister confirming that Britain would be able to strike out on its own; cementing new economic deals and helping to securing its future in the brave, new post-Brexit world. Trump sought to reassure May by announcing: “A free and independent Britain is a blessing to the world and our relationship has never been stronger.” May responded by inviting the President on a state visit to the UK.
This bold step by May quickly looked like a miscalculation after Trump announced the controversial travel ban to the US from seven countries with predominantly Muslim populations.
International condemnation of the travel ban followed, with commentators noting that May was slow to join in the criticism. The Observer newspaper warned: “Theresa May’s Washington Triumph, if that is what is was, will be short-lived. On issues that matter to Britain, Trump cannot be trusted.” In a critical editorial, it added, “Trump is ignorant, prejudiced and vicious in ways that no American leader has been.”
The British public seemed to agree. Over a million signatures on a UK petition opposed Trump coming on a state visit. Meanwhile, John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, announced that Trump should not be allowed to address the Houses of Parliament.
Trump would later cause further difficulties when his administration accused GCHQ of being a co-conspirator in his claim that ex-President Barack Obama had bugged Trump Towers.
In an unprecedented move, GCHQ described the accusations as ‘utterly ridiculous’ whilst a spokesman for the Prime Minister announced it had been made clear to US authorities that the claims “should have been ignored.” Trump never provided any evidence to back up his claim and the White House was forced to announce that it would not repeat the accusation.
The damage that was done is hard to judge, but it will certainly not have improved the relationships within the transatlantic intelligence community, particularly given that Britain’s best funded and largest intelligence agency was forced to come out and contradict a claim made by one of its closest allies and working partners.
This relationship had already been tested by the publication in January, by Buzzfeed, of a controversial dossier complied by ex-MI6 Officer, Christopher Steele, detailing Trump’s alleged links with Russia - links which continue to haunt the administration, and will do so for the foreseeable future.
Theresa May did telephone Trump to offer support for his recent air strike against Syria, agreeing with the president that there was “a window of opportunity” that existed to persuade Russia to abandon Assad.
However, the failure of Boris Johnson, the UK’s Foreign Secretary, to get the agreement of the G7 countries to enforce swift sanctions on Syria and Russia was a seen as a personal embarrassment. Russian media portrayed Johnson as Trump’s lapdog. The Foreign Secretary’s failure undermined the US-UK plan to pressurise Putin and, consequently, substantially weakened attempts to remove Assad.
It is clear that the last 100 days have tested relations between the USA and UK, and more is to come. Beginning with Churchill’s ‘Atlantic Bridge’, blossoming into what he believed was a “Special Relationship,” Britain has remained a natural ally of the US, and is still one of the strongest military and economic powers in Europe. But, this relationship may be about to change as Britain moves toward leaving the EU and Trump continues his “America First” agenda. The benefits of the special relationship seem less clear in the zero-sum world of Trump’s “art of the deal.” Indeed, warns Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations, references to the “Special Relationship” could become “increasingly rare and hollow.”
Dr Andrew Moran is an Associate Professor of International Relations at London Metropolitan University.