This week will be dominated by the visit of US President Donald Trump. My views on the man haven’t changed since I raised his character with the Prime Minister after his inauguration.
Regardless of what we think of him however, it’s important to recognise Trump marks a departure from previous US Presidents in terms of the relationship between the UK and the US. The US is our most important ally, and since 1945 the interests of our two countries have been broadly aligned. Of course we’ve had disagreements. I particularly admire the decision of Harold Wilson not to embroil the UK in the war in Vietnam, for instance. But on the big issues, such as the Cold War, or the Bretton Woods post-war financial system, we were on the same page.
Trump is different. On some specific issues, like free trade or tackling climate change, he’s in an overwhelmingly different place. This is a problem, and on climate change the mantle of world leadership has passed to China.
But there’s also a bigger issue. The UK punches well above our weight internationally, but fundamentally we’re a medium-sized country in a world increasingly dominated by the US and China. Other fast-growing countries, like India, Indonesia, and Brazil, have populations well in excess of us. The UK is therefore strongly committed to a rules-based international system, and strong alliances through NATO, the UN, and (even once we leave) a partnership with the EU.
Trump is the first US President who doesn’t necessarily agree with this. He has said very clearly he sees foreign relationships in terms of ‘America First’, not showing any appreciation for how the historic US support for Western Europe or Japan after WW2 fundamentally benefitted the US as well as us. He’s lukewarm on NATO, shows no regard for the UN, and has begun a trade war with China. He has said he even sees the EU as a trade rival. On China, in my view the US has reasonable concerns about China’s activities, but we’ll be forced to pick a side and the trade-offs will cause some pain, e.g. not using Huawei tech on 5G rollout could slow the rollout in the UK by several years.
We simply have to be alert to this. It’s not necessarily ‘business as usual’ now with the US. They are our most important ally and will remain so – the anniversary of D-Day, which should be celebrated widely across the country, is a reminder of this. But when we get a new Prime Minister they will need to be prepared to assert UK interests in a way we haven’t seen for some time. If we are to seek a trade deal with the US once we leave the EU (having read your letters on the TTIP Treaty I frankly doubt there is public support for this) then there is no way we should allow access to the NHS or throw away our agricultural sector for lower standard US foodstuffs.
This assertiveness is particularly important when it comes to national security. What worries me most about Trump is his bigotry towards Muslims. This is such an egregious and unfair insult to millions of people, but it also plays directly into the hands of extremists like ISIS. I hope, in the privacy of their meetings this week, the present Prime Minister makes these points politely but forcefully.
There’s been some talk this week about how Chinese Premier Xi Jinping got a state visit and no protests, despite running an authoritarian regime. But surely we expect a higher standard of behaviour from the US than China? Our choice on China is engagement or fight a new Cold War (without any guarantee we would win this one). Let’s not pretend they’re the same thing.