To Engage America, Theresa May Should Recognize the Real Concerns that Trump Raises

By underscoring the legitimacy of some of the US president’s criticisms, the British prime minister can send an important message to his supporters that she respects America’s democracy as well as its power.

Expert comment Published 10 July 2018 Updated 7 December 2018 3 minute READ
Donald Trump and Theresa May speak at the 2017 NATO summit in Brussels. Photo: Getty Images.

Donald Trump and Theresa May speak at the 2017 NATO summit in Brussels. Photo: Getty Images.

Europe has spent the past 18 months experimenting with an array of tactics to influence President Donald Trump, but so far neither Angela Merkel’s tough talk nor Emmanuel Macron’s red carpet treatment has fundamentally changed Trump’s policy decisions.

So what can Britain possible get out of an official visit from the American president that is worth the risk? Public protests have the potential to inflame Trump and Prime Minister Theresa May is in an increasingly weaker position. But just possibly, there is a chance to rewrite the storyline.

Trump’s visit to the United Kingdom should be judged for what it is – a vital component of Britain’s public diplomacy with Americans, and especially with Trump’s base of supporters.

In rally after rally, Trump has channelled his America First message. The crux of this is that America, and especially Trump voters, have been taken advantage of. Europe, especially Germany, is now the target of these allegations. Trump’s supporters will view his visit to the UK through a segmented media environment that channels Trump’s America First message.

So what does this mean for Britain’s leaders?

First, a strategy that seeks to ensure America’s continued investment in free trade and collective security with Europe will best succeed if it recognizes the legitimacy of existing grievances. Many Americans are sympathetic to the idea that America has contributed more than its fair share of Europe’s security bill and that the transatlantic bargain that underpins existing security arrangements needs to be renegotiated.

It is not a great leap to assume that a similar logic applies to transatlantic trade, and many do. More than a few Americans share the president’s assessment that the EU’s current 10% tariff on US auto imports is unfair, especially when compared to the America’s 2.5% tariff on imported European cars.

These concerns preceded Trump – the demand that Europe increase its spending on defence is not new. But, Trump has drawn on tactics designed to inflame and galvanize fear and anger and portray America’s friends as unsympathetic enemies. Britain’s experience of Brexit makes it particularly well placed to recognize and empathize with the legitimacy of these grievances, as well as their potential to undermine the public’s trust in long standing norms, historical institutions and international commitments.

Things become considerably murkier when Americans, and especially Trump’s voters, try to evaluate optimal solutions for addressing these grievances, especially those that entail renegotiating transatlantic trade and security arrangements. This is where Britain can make the difference by disputing falsehoods and misperceptions, and advancing a compelling, evidence-based solution to redress the shortcomings in existing transatlantic security and trade arrangements.

How to square the circle of free trade and economic dislocation is not obvious, but public welfare and transatlantic cooperation have gone together in the past, and could again.

Therefore, May should use Trump’s visit to launch a public diplomacy strategy that recognizes the legitimate concerns of Trump’s voters, but makes a strong case for continued transatlantic cooperation. For example, as one of only a few NATO members that has met the target of 2% GDP spending on defence, Britain is a natural ally in America’s long-standing demand that Europe do more to contribute to transatlantic security. It is important that Trump supporters understand this.

In the long term, this will be far more profitable than a visit that focuses too narrowly on securing America’s commitment to a US–UK trade deal, or that mistakenly attributes what is special about the special relationship to the chemistry that exists between the current leaders. It has the advantage of redirecting the relationship to the public domain, and the historical, cultural and educational experiences that draw the British and American people together.

This will prove a far firmer basis for securing a bright future for US–UK relations. There is, after all, plenty of room for optimism. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, Democrats and Republicans alike ranked Great Britain as the top foreign policy partner for the United States.

Finally, the current leadership in the UK faces its own domestic grievances that stem from an internationalism whose benefits are not seen as being evenly distributed at home. Channelled effectively, recognizing this particular transatlantic bond has the potential to produce greater understanding and commitment to cooperative solutions.

Trump’s America First message has been powerful even beyond its base. If leaders outside the United States fail to recognize the very real and legitimate popular concerns that make Trump’s politics possible, their complacency is not likely to go unnoticed. Far worse, denying or ignoring these may embolden the president and antagonize his supporters. Instead, Britain should take the lead in communicating passionate, rigorous and accessible solutions grounded in serious analysis that reveal the inability of Trump’s proposed trade and security offerings to deliver an adequate result to those whose concerns are indeed real.

By underscoring the legitimacy of some of Trump’s concerns, the prime minister can send an important message to his supporters that she respects America’s democracy – its institutions and its people – as well as its power. This will enhance Britain’s popularity in the US. It will also help by displacing the notion that May is supplicant to a powerful president and replacing it with the understanding that she respects the right of the American people to elect their own leader.