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A Very Special Relationship? 3 questions to Armida van Rij

BLOG - 18 July 2018

By Institut Montaigne

President Donald Trump’s week-long adventure in Europe (NATO summit in Belgium, official visit in Britain and summit in Finland with Vladimir Putin) both surprised and confused all commentators. Armida van Rij, Policy Researcher at the Policy Institute at King’s College London, tries to shed a light on this puzzling trip, and its implications for European allies. 

Following the visit of British Prime Minister Theresa May to the United States in January 2017, does the visit of Donald Trump strengthen the ‘special relationship’ between the two countries?

During the press conference towards the end of his first visit to the UK on Friday, President Trump gave the UK the ‘highest level of special’ when it comes to bilateral relationships.

However, since Trump has come into office, relations between the UK and the US have looked less strong than they have in the past. Historically, the US and the UK have enjoyed very deep and close cooperation on nuclear and intelligence issues, a relationship brought about by particular circumstances during the Cold War. Yet, while close and deep, the ‘special relationship’ has perhaps been more valued in London than in Washington. 

With the current administration, it is important to look beyond the President’s intemperate tweets and focus on what has actually taken place. The US acted alongside the UK and France during airstrikes on Syria following a chemical attack on civilians in Douma by Syrian President Assad – though these strikes are more symbolic than a real deterrent for the use of chemical weapons by the regime. The US also stood alongside the UK in expelling Russian diplomats following the use of a chemical weapon by Russia on UK soil, in what proved to be a demonstration of the UK’s ability to mobilise its vast diplomatic network effectively, despite Brexit. Finally, Trump reaffirmed the US’ commitment to NATO last week, the UK’s most important multilateral security alliance, even if after a lot of fireworks.

Yet it would be difficult for anyone to argue that the special relationship has been strengthened following Trump’s visit to the UK – if only due to the embarrassment Theresa May has had to endure at the hands of her guest. The anti-Trump protests across the UK signalled a rejection of the President and his values by segments of the British population. Indeed, as much as 77% of Brits have an unfavourable view of Donald Trump, according to an ITV/ YouGov poll conducted prior to his visit.

In the past, the two countries have been brought and bound together by common causes and common principles, such as shared security threats and a commitment to democracy and a liberal world order. Today, these things seem to be fading in importance for the current administration, thereby weakening the bond the two countries share.

What are the points of convergence and divergence between the two countries under the Trump presidency and at the time of the Brexit negotiations?

To be frank, there aren’t many points of convergence between the US and the UK – or any other European country – at the moment. Trump disagrees with most of his European allies on trade, Iran, Russia and climate change, to name just a few key policy problems. Any attempts to make him change his mind have – as of yet – failed. 

As a result, during this presidency, the UK has found itself aligning more closely with the positions of other European countries than those of the US when it comes to foreign policy, resulting in anti-Brexit commentators wondering why the UK is leaving the EU in the first place.

Beyond specific foreign policy differences, there are also bigger, more fundamental points of divergence between the two countries’ governments. Under ‘Global Britain’, as poorly defined as the UK’s post-Brexit slogan may be, Theresa May’s government has embarked on a journey to try and strengthen the UK’s bilateral relationships around the world.

In contrast, the US has become more inward-looking under Trump, pursuing policies on the international stage that resonate with the President’s core domestic supporters. The administration’s focus on trade and the perception this has been bad for the US economy and American business has driven a protectionist trade policy, just at a time when the UK is searching for free trade agreements across the globe, to make up for a drop in trade with the EU once it leaves the bloc.

But nevertheless, Trump doesn’t seem to believe in (or respect, for that matter) the value of international institutions and rules. Instead he believes in hard power – evidenced by the hike in US defence spending since he took office – and coercion, rather than negotiation and compromise. This has translated into the US becoming a more unstable actor, one which is difficult for the UK government to rely upon, and which the UK is therefore likely to have a more difficult and fractious relationship with for the foreseeable future.

So while the UK-US relationship will certainly outlive the Trump administration, there is serious damage being done, both domestically in the US and to the country’s relationships with allies. 

What implications do the outcomes of the meeting between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump have for the relationship between the UK and the US?

The past week and a half has been extraordinary in the world of international affairs. It appears that Trump has fallen into a habit of stepping on the toes of America’s traditional allies, while acting friendly with the US’s (and the West’s) traditional opponents: blasting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the same month as a meeting with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, and chastising Germany, and Chancellor Merkel, just a few days before meeting President Putin. 

The Trump-Putin meeting is particularly sensitive for the UK. While Trump has focussed on strengthening relations with Russia, UK-Russia relations are at a new low. This is largely a consequence of a chemical attack taking place on British soil with two sets of victims, and the death of an unintended target who is a British national with strong indications that Russia is responsible.

Yet, it should also be particularly sensitive for the US. Days before the Trump-Putin meeting, the FBI indicted 12 Russian officials for meddling in the 2016 election. Putin of course denied his government was involved, but more shocking was that Trump stood next to him and simply accepted this denial, effectively declaring that he did not believe the evidence provided by his own domestic intelligence agencies. This is unprecedented.

The optics of the Trump-Putin meeting are suboptimal to say the least. But perhaps there is more value at looking at what was not said at the summit, rather than at what was. The US and Russia did not announce any major deal prior to or after it, suggesting little progress on difficult issues. On the other hand, the refusal to condemn the annexation of Crimea, and indeed the blithe acceptance of Putin’s denials about election interference implicitly confirm Trump’s pro-Russia stance. 

The events of the past week and a half are the culmination of a process started since President Trump’s election campaign: the undermining of the liberal world order that the US itself helped to establish. Trump is indeed playing right into Putin’s hands, dividing the West and fracturing ties with longstanding allies.

 

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