UK’s interests likely to end up in the firing line

A strategy of cosying up to Trump is not without risk as, despite his avowed Anglophilia, his American First outlook may see him care little for the UK, argues Andrew Hammond.

UK’s interests likely to end up in the firing line

A strategy of cosying up to Trump is not without risk as, despite his avowed Anglophilia, his American First outlook may see him care little for the UK, argues Andrew Hammond.

The UK’s Ambassador to Washington Kim Darroch resigned yesterday after Donald Trump doubled-down on his extraordinary war of words against him and outgoing UK prime minister Theresa May.

While it is widely assumed that a change of prime minister can rejuvenate the so-called special relationship, especially Trump’s kindred spirit Boris Johnson, this may not be so easy given the US president’s erratic nature, and key differences between the two sides over their post-Brexit relationship.

The row, which has also seen a post-Brexit trade deal negotiation meeting postponed between US commerce secretary Wilbur Ross and UK trade secretary Liam Fox, comes at a very tricky time for London in at least two respects. Firstly, the transition of power now underway — with May a ‘lame duck’ prime minister — makes it harder for the two sides to rebuild bridges quickly.

In addition, the UK government is simultaneously on the backfoot with other key non-EU relationships, including China and Japan, at the same time that the nation is scheduled to leave the EU on October 31.

Not only are London’s ties strained with Beijing over Hong Kong, but other key trading relationships — including with Tokyo — have been weakened in recent months following a diplomatic upset in February.

In this context, the May team is dismayed by this latest bout of bilateral angst with the United States following the leak of cables with critical comments about the ever-insecure Trump from Darroch. And the episode is all the more frustrating for Downing Street because it comes after a trip widely perceived as very successful last month by Trump to London.

Despite significant public protests, Trump’s tour was not the diplomatic disaster of 2018, and both governments hoped it may breathe new life into the ‘special relationship’ after his tricky ties with May.

While both the president and prime minister have made efforts to seek a constructive partnership the last two and a half years building on the traditional ties between the two nations founded on demographics, religion,culture, law, politics and economics, this ultimately fell flat, and Trump effectively endorsed Johnson last month during his London trip after his assessment of the “disappointing” May.

It is clear that Trump sees a potential, post-Brexit, US-UK trade deal as the cornerstone of a renewed ‘special relationship’, and this could also be a boon for him personally given that he is criticised, in many quarters, as being a protectionist president.

From the standpoint of Brexiteers too, including Johnson, this would also represent a win in their own battle to show that the nation can potentially swiftly secure trade deals with key non-European partners.

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 “America First” agenda.

Specific areas of potential disagreement on trade include the prospect that harmonising financial regulations between the two countries, with the international dominance of Wall Street and the City of London, will not necessarily be straight forward.

Meanwhile, securing agreement in other sectors, including agriculture, where there are divergences of views and strong interest groups, will not be easy.

While security and defence have long been at the core of the special relationship, tensions have also surfaced even here, including over Huawei, the Chinese-headquartered technology firm, and Russia.

Take the example of Huawei where Washington has warned UK officials that it may limit intelligence sharing if London allows the Chinese firm to build part of its 5G high speed mobile network.

On Russia, Trump has openly courted Vladimir Putin, much to the chagrin of May. Whoever replaces her, London will likely remain a strong defender of Nato. In so doing, it is probable the new prime minister will, under the UK’s Article 5 responsibilities in that organisation, pledge to come to the aid of any Eastern European countries attacked by Moscow, an issue that Trump has so far been hazy on.

Going forward, given the multiple uncertainties ahead in the Trump presidency which could extend until 2025, the next UK prime minister 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 to make the relationship work as smoothly as possible.

This may provide some protections for bilateral relations in what could be a rocky few years of international relations to come, even if strong personal chemistry again fails 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 erratic nature and polarised standingin UK opinion.

While seeking the potential upside in the new relationship, May’s successor 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, despite his avowed Anglophilia.

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.

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