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How Britain should play the Trump card without folding or upping the ante

January 12th, 2018

A guest slot from Julian Glassford

The vertiginous rise of the new champion of the alt-right in 2016 prompted a palpable blend of bafflement and consternation among the political elite right around the globe. Few dared even imagine that Donald Trump would triumph over his wily, experienced, and altogether far more internationally acceptable rival in the US presidential election. Indeed, most appeared caught almost completely off-guard and, a year on, none have yet managed to figure out quite how to tame the beast (if such a thing is possible).

Before “the Donald” had even taken the oath analysts were mourning the end of the age of Atlanticism, and who can blame them? He has, after all, labelled NATO obsolete, characterised the EU a defunct vehicle for German hegemony, and now added an unedifying Twitter spat with the British Prime Minister to his growing collection of controversies. Other commentators speculated that the reality TV star turned statesman was just posturing during the presidential campaign and would reign in the headline-grabbing stunts once in office. If they were banking on 2017 being a year of relative tranquillity on that basis, well then they miscalculated, bigly.

Resurgent populism and the nationalistic upending of the Washington Consensus has left (neo)liberal internationalists the world over with their heads in a spin. “They that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind”, and boy has the global political climate become blustery on their watch! Enter brash Trumponomics, rash social policy, and decidedly undiplomatic rhetoric scarcely seen in the West since The War.

Major domestic and international protests sparked by the Trump travel ban saga, followed by calls for the man himself to be barred from visiting countries like the UK – which have only grown following his far-right retweets – place governments in an awkward position. Few leaders can risk appearing to accept socially divisive ‘alternative facts’ or to condone his incendiary politics. Fewer still can afford to turn their backs on the largest and most advanced economic and military power on earth, however. And, given our role as a bastion of ‘soft power’ and human dignity vs. the need to nail‘The Art of the Deal’ with the US ahead of post-Brexit trade talks, this tension applies to the UK in spades.

Public figures have every right to voice their discontent, and relevant politicians and diplomats are of course duty-bound to make appropriate representations to their stateside counterparts. But, at the end of the day, whilst we do not have to respect the views and policies that President Trump espouses we cannot deny anyone’s right to hold or state them. Instead, we must trust in modern democratic institutions, our values, and unity. If we cannot place our faith wholly in these things then surely this says more about the state of our society and fragility of our principles (e.g. free speech) than it does about the vulgarian at the centre of the storm.

Far from deterred, Donald – like many an ‘echo chamber’ dwelling ‘keyboard warrior’ – appears buoyed by his latest fracas, even if most Americans clearly disapprove of his Twitter antics. As it dawns on remonstrators that the egotistical and intransigent showman is, figuratively speaking at least, sat in the Oval Office with his fingers in his ears and his direct line unplugged, many governments will be tempted to disengage completely. The UK must not do so. “Keep Calm and Carry on”, as the saying goes.

Britain can ill afford to sacrifice the special relationship as a knee-jerk reaction to political incorrectness or, indeed, in the name of tokenistic ‘virtue signalling’. Whatever the likes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel may say about Europe going its own way, Western interests are not well served by marginalising the United States or its capricious commander in chief. The recent announcement regarding the relocation of the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem offers a timely reminder that, left to his own devices, the cocksure neophyte is liable to land us all in a world of trouble.

For all his characteristically provocative and bolshie behaviour on social media, the President is a self-confessed Anglophile with Scottish roots. He shares a close affinity with a number of British public figures, actively seeks their advice, and was of course keen to invite the PM to be the first foreign head of state to visit him in office. Slightly uncomfortable, and recently diminished, though this association has been, the spirit of such acts has value and should not be disregarded.

Rather than cancel the much maligned US state visit outright, as others have pointed out the government can just as well kick it into the long grass. With a little quintessentially British composure and savvy, it should be possible to sustain cordial relations and continue to productively engage with our friends across the pond without compromising on matters moral integrity or social stability.

Strong leadership entails embracing difficulty, acting with level-headed stoicism, and leading by example, and we are in the business of building bridges, not walls. To abandon the current US administration at this juncture would be no more flattering on the UK than the reverse proposition i.e. Blair-Bush style fawning. Instead, we must live up to the long tradition of being America’s faithful, if not uncritical, old friend and ally. This means underscoring shared pluralistic values and being the pragmatic voice of reason: ever ready to administer a helping hand and, where necessary, the odd slap on the wrist.

 

Brief Bio: Julian Glassford is a UK-based multidisciplinary researcher and social entrepreneur.