Conserving the UK’s strategic interests in the case of a Trump presidency

A Trump presidency would require a radical re-think of the UK’s relation with the US. The UK cannot afford and indeed would not want to make any knee-jerk reaction to its relationship with our most important ally. Trump’s rhetoric is very well known, whether it be denying climate change, or wanting to “declare economic independence”. These ideas and comments should be ringing alarm bells for the UK and could have a significant impact on the UK’s economic, defence and geopolitical, and global governance interests due to the close links we share. There would be a high risk of “guilt by association” to a controversial President if we were to maintain a status quo, but that shouldn’t mean we sever our government contacts and our alliance.

Economic Interests

The US is one of the UK’s biggest trade partners, with £3.5bn worth of exports and £4.4bn worth of imports in August 2016 alone. The UK’s dependence is such that the possibility of US ‘economic independence’ (Trump has threatened to quit NAFTA and WTO) is a serious worry. Furthermore, the UK’s role and position in the world economy is in considerable flux, and it is important that we are prepared so as to get the best trade deals possible in a post-Brexit environment. Trump’s trade adviser has stated that the UK would be at the front of the queue for any post-Brexit trade deal, indicating that UK-US trade might not be at risk if Trump were to become President.

Brexit might well open the door to future international trade deals that could benefit the UK, but it’s also the cause of much short term uncertainty with regards to the UK’s trade position in the world. In such a situation of uncertainty, the UK should be careful to balance its various trade interests. One such example is China. China is our 6th most important trade partner and has been one of the constant targets of Trump’s propaganda. The question remains as to how we could keep both China and the US to remain important trade partners to the UK, something for which our neutrality will be key.

Defence, Security, and Geopolitical concerns

US and UK security, defence and intelligence agencies share close ties, routinely cooperating with their counterparts and serving as investigative partners. This would be a difficult partnership to remove oneself from, regardless of the fact that it would be questionable as to the benefits this would achieve. Even if Trump were to be President, there would be many American officials who would value the presence and alliance of a more moderate UK. Equally, the UK would be able to preserve its interests and influence that comes with these close ties.

With Trump saying “I want to keep NATO, but I want them to pay”, Trump threatens to remove the guarantee that the US would defend their NATO allies. A weaker NATO raises defence concerns for the UK. The UK should be prepared for a rethink on their position on international defence in which all scenarios might be back on the table.

Trump has also stated: “I would bomb the shit out of ISIS- and I’ll take their oil”. If this were to translate into military intervention, it would likely increase national and regional animosity towards the US and its allies. Therefore, the UK should tread carefully in relation to the conflicts it enters and make sure that any joint action with the US is done as part of a UN approved larger coalition so as to minimise reputational damage. The UK should work hard to maximise its utility at the UN as a permanent member of the Security Council, ensuring it maintains an important role in global governance irrespective of its alliance and ties with the US.

To conclude, no President has ever kept all their campaign promises, and much of what Trump has been saying is likely to be electoral campaign rhetoric. In any case, a Trump presidency would be the result of a democratic process, and the UK should build on the fact that Trump considers us ‘friends who have always supported us’, to continue a strong US-UK relationship. Trump or no Trump, the reality is that our relationship with the US is one that we cannot afford to lose.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
Edward Elliott

Edward Elliott is a Senior Associate at the British Foreign Policy Group.