In the current global political climate, UK-US relations hang worryingly in the balance. Relations with one another’s transatlantic counterpart have simultaneously been touted as pivotal and yet uncertain, currently. Yet with Nigel Farage marching onto the scene claiming to be the key to reviving relations between the two nations through his ostensible “bromance” with Donald Trump, why, then, has Downing Street rebuffed Farage’s overtures so swiftly? And what are we to make of the future of UK-US relations?
With “unpredictability” being a hallmark of Trump’s politics throughout the election campaign alongside only two of the key positions in the Trump Administration having been confirmed so far, the practice of making concrete predictions on a Trump presidency is risky business. But regardless, a brief look at how the new administrations of May and Trump are likely (wish me luck) to approach the transatlantic limb of their emerging foreign policy strategies, alongside how Farage fits into this picture, serves as a prudent approach to shedding light on the future of UK-US relations.
May’s Approach to the US
Starting with more certain aspects, it is safe to assume that, for the time being, the lion’s share of the UK’s international efforts will be focused on the Brexit negotiations. Nevertheless, at a time of such unprecedented uncertainty in UK foreign policy, its “special relationship” could never be far away from the spotlight.
Looking at May’s approach to the election campaign across the Atlantic, the British PM was decidedly more measured in her comments on some of Trump’s hugely divisive statements than were many of her counterparts across the globe – a veiled reproach against Trump’s vitriol-laden campaign style was as close as she got. Further, she was relatively swift in extending a warm hand to Trump after his victory. Thus it is clear that an outright repudiation of the “special relationship” is not on the cards.
Yet this is hardly surprising. Few in the Euro-sceptic wing of the governing Tory party have advocated an isolationist British foreign policy. And it would have taken a British leader as bold as Donald Trump himself to turn his or her back on a long-held bastion of British foreign and security policy that is its alliance with the most powerful country in the world.
Instead, the devil, as they say, is in the detail. While German Chancellor Angela Merkel also extended her congratulations to Trump, her’s was more lukewarm with a faint wisp of a warning: that the continuance of robust US-Germany relations depends on the extent to which the Trump Administration adheres to the shared liberal democratic values that have shaped and guided their warm relations in the past. May, on the other hand, was not so daring. There were no veiled warnings or foreboding undertones. Instead, May simply used the opportunity to reinforce Britain’s commitment to “maintain[ing] the security and prosperity of our two nations in the future.” This reaction seems to run in line with what appears to be an emerging pillar of her government’s foreign policy strategy: upholding the national interest through pragmatism. With this in mind, one can imagine that this is likely to be a guiding light of the Government’s approach to Trump and his alt-right brand of politics in the years to come. In other words, May will be willing to forego Trump’s repudiation of liberal ideals to some degree for tangible national gains.
Indeed, this does some to be the case. Just this week, May spoke at the lord mayor’s banquet in London, where she showed a degree of pliability both in her approach to international trade and the overall liberal consensus itself as she pledged to lead the charge in remaking globalisation – a not-so-subtle tip of the hat towards The Donald’s flagship economic campaign pledge. Thus it seems May is ready to adapt her government’s approach to foreign policy in order to accommodate Trump and his anti-globalisation politics.
Trump’s Approach to the UK
Trump, for his part, would likely find a number of benefits from a close relationship with the UK. While former Breitbart head and newly-appointed chief strategist, Steve Bannon, alongside other alt-right figures in Trump’s team will no doubt be revelling in the praise being heaped on Trump from authoritarians around the world (most notably in Putin and Assad), Trump’s foreign policy would benefit greatly from the backing and support from more traditional allies in the Western world. Support from a liberal Western power would help legitimise many of Trump’s likely brash and likely earth-shaking approach to US foreign policy. And who better than a post-Brexit Britain with a leader who has declared she is receptive to his anti-globalisation, anti-establishment message? Further, with Britain seemingly going to leave the customs union with the EU, nothing would reinforce Donald Trump’s self-acclaimed deal-making acumen like a trade deal with America’s oldest ally.
Key Foreign Policy Areas
Trade, therefore, is likely going to be a key aspect of relations between the two nations in the future. Of course, there remains a number of question marks behind this. Nevertheless, with both sides keen to show that they are ready to tackle the economic questions caused by their respective political shakeups, international trade will undoubtedly be a key area upon which both sides will be keen to bolster ties.
On the harder policy areas of security and defence, close cooperation on these fronts may indeed continue into the future. Yet this depends to a large degree whether Trump’s moderated, more conciliatory tone he has adopted in the aftermath of the election extends to these two key policy areas. A couple of points, however, are important to note.
For defence, the misconception that a Trump presidency would spell the end for NATO has largely been clarified in recent days. Trump’s opposition to NATO will likely be assuaged were he able to secure that the US is to foot less of the NATO bill in the years to come. In other words, NATO will likely receive Trump’s support if he is able to ensure that more (or all) NATO members are meeting the spending target of 2% of GDP, as it stands. Britain, fortunately, is currently one of the few surpassing this target at roughly 2.1%. And perhaps more importantly, Britain is leading the charge in encouraging its NATO counterparts to meet the spending target. This will likely ensure Britain stays in Donald Trump’s good books on the NATO front at least.
For security, the big question mark is how Britain react if the US adopts Trump’s current position that ISIS, not Assad, should be the main focus of US efforts in the Levante region. The implications of this are that America would then be looking to build coalitions with both Syrian and Russian forces to achieve this goal. Whether this will even materialise, however, is again difficult to judge. VP-elect Mike Pence pronounced (albeit, somewhat off-the-cuff) a vastly different position on this issue in the run-up to the election, stating that “America should be prepared to use military force to strike the military forces of the Assad regime.” Moreover, as The Times suggested on Tuesday, many in Britain are still holding out that Trump might “do a Boris” and reverse his position on dealing with Assad and the Russians upon being briefed on classified information.
Interestingly, a key test of how much May is willing to bend her principles for the good of the UK-US relationship would likely arise if Trump follows through on his campaign commitment to (re)introduce torture as a means of interrogation of terror suspects. Yet this is just another bellicose statement from the campaign trail; who knows how many of these will actually be implemented by the Trump Administration.
Economically, therefore, the UK is likely to entertain the anti-globalisation rhetoric of the Trump team and build towards a more robust trading relationship as it edges away from Brussels. Defence, too, has the potential for close cooperation between the two nations. On the security side, however, the plethora of potential pitfalls alongside the lack of certainty on even the basics of what a Trump Administration security policy will look like, make safe predictions near-on impossible.
With all this uncertainty and volatility for this pivotal alliance, one might expect that Theresa May would jump at any opportunity to smooth these precarious relations. May, however, was quick to denounce the introduction of Nigel Farage marching onto the scene (or “gliding”, since the meeting was in Trump’s famous escalator-filled New York Tower). Before his meeting with Trump had even taken place, May had already branded Farage an “irrelevance”. Downing Street further underlined this position earlier this week by a spokesman at No.10 blankly refuting Farage’s insinuations that they needed to mend the purportedly poor relationship between Trump’s team and No.10.
But is Downing Street right to take this approach?
Farage himself has admitted that Trump spoke of the “warm” phone call between himself and May. Indeed, Trump reportedly suggested to May the possibility of them forging a Thatcher-Reagan-style partnership in the years to come. He also invited May to visit the US at the “earliest opportunity”.
However, while his words to the British premier may have been warm, there is evidence to suggest that all is not as rosy as Downing Street makes out. Although extending her a textbook courtesy, the simple fact that both sides reported to the media of this, rather than a possible President Trump visit to the UK, could underline his intentions not to afford the UK the “honour” of being his first port of call on his international duties as president. Indeed, this would seem to be the case if his first international calls as President-elect are anything to go by, with May embarrassingly behind nine other national leaders.
Farage, for his part, is, unsurprisingly, playing a wily game. Keenly aware of May’s approach to foreign policy, he urged the British Prime Minister to “put the national interest first” in his overtures to the British Government to be involved in UK-US bilateral relations. And in a predictably combative fashion, May’s slap-down has spurred Farage to attempt to bolster his position by alleging that Trump’s team are sceptical of the May Government due to comments made by her and members of her Cabinet during the EU referendum earlier in the year. In an article in the Telegraph on Monday, Farage states,
The only slight negative I picked up was the sense that so many senior Conservative figures and indeed important staff figures who now work in No 10 had been so unrelentingly negative about The Donald. Clearly, there are fences to be mended.
Using this to his advantage, he goes on:
If the president-elect trusts me then I would hope that some in the British Government could do the same thing. I would be very happy to provide introductions and to start the necessary process of mending fences. And I would not want anything in return. I hope in our national interest that some sense prevails on this.
This does seem like a prudent and pragmatic proposition, especially for a British Government that has shown it is receptible to such an approach when it comes to matters of foreign policy. Indeed, the Telegraph has reported that prominent members of her cabinet are urging May to do just that.
However, while pressure to entertain Farage’s proposition may be mounting, the simple fact is that courting Nigel Farage is just too big of a risk to Theresa May and the brand of government she is trying to administer.
May’s stalwart commitment over the years to “compassionate conservatism” played a prominent part in her keynote speech to the Conservative Party Conference last month. In pursuit of this, creating “a country that works for everyone” has become a central pillar in May’s brand of government. And while her compassionate conservatism brand may nevertheless get damaged somewhat as she courts the divisive and hard-hitting strongman in the Oval Office, she will likely seek to do what she can to minimise the damage done by this pragmatic approach to UK-US relations. Actively seeking the assistance and partnership of the highly divisive and immigrant-bashing Farage in this endeavour is, therefore, likely a step too far.
Instead, there are other options (albeit, still risky) that May is more likely to pursue. While leading her rejection of Farage with a charm offensive towards Trump with a likely visit to the US before Trump’s inauguration is a safe opener, May has a potential ace-in-the-hole which could prove decisive. As reported in the FT on Tuesday, International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, “has worked assiduously on his contacts with many of the leading figures on the American right” for many years. His close connections with Rudy Giuliani – the current favourite to become the next US Secretary of State – and former UN Ambassador John Bolton – also in the running for a top spot in Trump’s cabinet – place him in a potentially pivotal position for smoothing out tensions between the two administrations.
Yet the question remains whether May will be willing to unleash Fox on Washington for risk of damaging her government’s EU negotiations back home (he is already being barred by Downing Street currently from giving on-the-record interviews). Nevertheless, if May were to loosen her vice-grip over her Cabinet’s government-approved activities and statements, Fox could be hugely instrumental in forging UK-US ties at the top for years to come, most notably in the crucial area of trade.
With the proverbial (or not so) “Faragian spanner” being thrown into the works, UK-US relations are likely to sit precariously for the time being. Yet with both sides keen to forge robust relations, there are a number of factors to suggest that UK-US ties may yet flourish, with trade a particularly intriguing area for potential cooperation. In this year’s seemingly endless stream of political upsets, however, all bets are off.