UK & US hand in hand: Values vs Interests in the Trump Era

Theresa May’s positive efforts to strengthen the ‘special relationship’ and the ensuing negative reactions in the UK are a sign of the significant challenges that the UK will face in implementing ‘Global Britain’.

The Prime Minister’s visit to the US has raised questions in the UK about how the UK should balance an important alliance with the risk of a “guilt by association”, a challenge anticipated in a previous article published through the BFPG. Trump’s apparent vigour to fulfil campaign promises only heightens the challenge. Mrs May is facing growing criticism in the UK for aligning too early with a US led by such a controversial President, to the point of appearing “desperate” according to Green Party Co-Leader Jon Bartley. This criticism has exponentially increased from all fronts since her Philadelphia speech, with over a million members of the UK public signing a petition to stop Donald Trump’s UK state visit.

This may be slightly unfair. Although overshadowed by the subsequent immigration issue, the PM’s Philadelphia speech was an important statement of intent, striking a worthy balance of aligning with the US’s vision and values, as well as providing subtle reminders of what the UK sees as dangerous political and ideological principles. Highlighting the distinction between radical extremism and the “peaceful religion of Islam”, and providing the argument in support of a “controversial nuclear deal with Iran”, the PM nudged the US to reconsider the methods and approaches it has said it will take towards these global concerns shared by the UK. Theresa May also stated that the UK will remain one of the strongest advocates of free trade, countering Trump’s protectionist politics, but notably failed to make such a strong case for combatting climate change. Key values such as the importance of an international rules-based system and the institutions required to enforce such a system also featured strongly in her speech. As discussed in the BFPG report, “Why a British Foreign Policy Group”, these institutions need reform, for which the UK will need its ally the US, arguably until now the most influential country in most of these institutions, to lead the way alongside the UK. 

The PM mentioned leadership 22 times. Historically, the UK has led the way in many aspects of International Relations, many of those times in tandem with the US. This wasn’t always done without mistakes, but the need to “defend and project our values” remains, and can only be done through strong effective global leadership. But the US is a country that under Trump may well be looking more backwards than forwards, with protectionist economic measures and extreme anti-immigration policies. The UK must avoid the mistake of thinking that a renewed and strengthened special partnership will be the sole solution to creating a successful Global Britain.

Short-term criticisms of long-term diplomacy

Since Theresa May’s Philadelphia speech, the UK government has witnessed the challenges that ‘Global Britain’ faces from a world in which the shifts in international relations are moving at a faster pace than ever. Trump’s executive order on immigration and Theresa May’s delayed and muted criticism of said actions have been fiercely criticised by members of her own party, the opposition, the press, and most importantly the UK public, many of whom appear not to share the same patience towards our international relations as the UK’s government does. Questions have been raised as to what global relations the UK should be having and whether the UK should overlook certain actions for the sake of diplomacy. Where that line should be drawn in these cases remains a matter of opinion, but it is important to consider not only the short-term outcomes of diplomacy, but also the long-term benefits. One of the reasons that diplomacy is so important for the UK’s foreign policy is that it provides a platform for securing the UK’s interests and voicing its concerns, but crucially, in a way that doesn’t offend the other party nor damages long-term relationships. Securing President Trump’s public support for NATO and the subsequent failure by President Putin to get immediate concessions on sanctions may be examples of smart UK diplomacy on issues that have been overlooked by the UK media in favour of the changes to US immigration rules.

But the wariness present in the UK surrounding its relations with the US is not without reason. Whilst it is currently in the US’ interests to align with the UK, as it has often been throughout history, there have always been exceptions, and not all have been immediately apparent. Recently, the CIA released 13 million reports amongst which hid one called “UK-Spain: Gibraltar –Struggle for a piece of rock”. CIA comments about the future of Gibraltar can at best be seen as neutral, at worst, to support Spanish claims to the UK Territory. Written in 1983, the US was interested in Spain joining NATO, but there was a risk that Spain would not join over conflicts surrounding Gibraltar. The report concludes that “after an interim solution of dual administration, Gibraltar could become another of Spain’s semi-autonomous regions”. In its dealings with all states, the UK would do well to apply the PM’s warning about Putin: “engage but beware”.  As Charles de Gaulle once said “States don’t have friends, they have interests”.

These recent events surrounding US-UK relations highlight the challenges the UK government is facing on foreign policy not only abroad but at home. The Government might well be on the right tracks in terms of providing clarity on the path ahead, and despite the headlines may have demonstrated the value of quiet diplomacy on some critical issues through the PM’s early visit to Washington, but it must not overlook the crucial role of informing and involving the UK public in order to ensure the success of this project. From this perspective, the current protests against a State visit by President Trump might be welcomed not necessarily as a basis for policy, but as an opportunity to engage nationally on what actually should be the driving principles of British Foreign Policy, and where the inevitable compromises should lie. Disagreement in a democracy is inevitable and welcome, but a lack of discussion undermines the legitimacy of any policy at a time when the costs of such a loss are becoming ever more apparent – and not just in the US.

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.