US-Britain Analysis: Will Trump Doom the “Special Relationship”?

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PHOTO: Donald Trump makes a point in Scotland


Published in partnership with London’s Sunday Express:


Prime Minister David Cameron swallowed hard on Tuesday and told reporters that Donald Trump, the likely Republican nominee for the US Presidency, “deserves our respect”.

And then, just as significantly, the Prime Minister refused to pull back his remarks from January that Trump’s remarks on excluding Muslim visitors from the US are “stupid, divisive, and wrong”.

Cameron and his advisors will now probably choose discretion, saying little about the businessman and reality TV star. They will hope for the probable outcome of Hillary Clinton defeating Trump in November. It will then be business-as-usual with a Clinton Administration, having worked with the new President — and many of the people in her Government — throughout the Obama years.

But behind the silence, they will still be concerned about another upset. They will approach any prospect of a President Trump by adopting the line of the 1980s horror film The Fly: Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

An Incoherent Foreign Policy

The starting point is Trump’s arrogant, narcissistic, in-your-face personality. It is hard to see how this candidate — who has again and again degraded women, who has cast scorn on minorities as evil and dangerous, who has reveled in calling his rivals “liars” while bragging about his manhood, who has bragged that he could shoot someone in the street and get away with it — can become a statesman promoting US-UK relations.

But that is only the starting and, believe it or not, less important point. In part, Trump’s approach covers up his disturbing notion of foreign policy, marked by little or no understanding of international affairs, a stereotyping of both nominal friends and declared foes, and a fire-first-and-ask-questions-later strategy.

He is advocating a trade war with China, since Beijing is supposedly “raping” the US, despite its damaging effect on the global economy. Even as he proclaims a belief in free markets, he wants to rip up the North American Free Trade Area.

He has said the US must reassure its friends, but in the next breath declared that America must be ready to leave NATO.

He has said that Washington must stand up to rivals. But his greatest admiration for a foreign leader is for Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

He has declared that he is “strengthening and promoting Western civilization”, as he calls for the re-introduction of torture.

He derides the current US approach to the Middle East but offers no alternative other than support Israel and bomb the Islamic State. He wants to tear up the nuclear deal with Iran, but does not explain how the renewed conflict — and Tehran’s return to an unchecked nuclear program — will be beneficial.

And on Britain, he says nothing. Not a single word of his April 27 speech setting out his foreign policy was devoted to the UK. “Europe” was only mentioned once.

For Donald Trump, Britain is only notable for “no-go areas”, as he proclaimed last December, “We have places in London and other places that are so radicalised the police are afraid for their own lives.”

Not-So-Special Relationship

But Trump’s threat to the US-UK relationship is even greater than an incoherent, risky foreign policy. The menace is to institutions that have been built up over 75 years, from World War II through the Cold War to the post-9/11 world.

Despite headlines given to the friendships of leaders — Eisenhower and Macmillan, Reagan and Thatcher, Bush and Blair — the bedrock of US-UK cooperation is the links that have been developed between agencies. Britain is “first among equals” for Washington because of the communication between the State Department and Foreign Office, the Treasury and the Exchequer, and the military and intelligence services.

Donald Trump is a man who puts himself beyond those institutions. His arrogance and approach to policy has led former high-ranking US officials to warn that the American military, let alone the British, will not work with a President Trump. Dozens of foreign policy officials and advisors, all Republicans, wrote, “We commit ourselves to working energetically to prevent the election of someone so utterly unfitted to the office.”

Unsurprisingly, Whitehall and the British military have remained silent about alliance under a Trump Administration. But there is little doubt that messages are being quietly passed around London and across the Atlantic. In late March, the Economist Intelligence Unit, with close connections with officials, assessed that a Trump Presidency would be among the top 10 global risks.

Some analysts have sought the reassurance that there was uncertainty about Ronald Reagan before he became President in 1981.

But there is a big difference between then and now. Reagan surrounded himself from experienced foreign policy advisors and commanders who would take up positions in his Cabinet and military: Alexander Haig, George Schultz, Caspar Weinberger, James Baker, Colin Powell.

Asked about his advisors in late March, Trump could offer only five little-known names. Among them were a neo-conservative best known for Islamophobic remarks, an energy consultant in London, and a former general who has disappeared from public view. Four of the five had never spoken to Trump.

It is probable that the American and British communities in diplomacy, the military, and intelligence will maintain their close relationships despite a President Trump. But he would be likely to make the task difficult, given his statements, his insistence that he and he alone is in command, and his denigration of anyone who expresses disagreement. David Cameron and those around him may not be able to swallow hard enough to maintain the appearance of alliance and friendship.

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

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