Trump’s UK Visit: A Look at the Key Issues

Chatham House experts examine some of the fault lines in the relationship between the US, the UK and Europe as the US president comes to London.

Expert comment
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Donald Trump at a press conference at Chequers during his 2018 visit to Britain. Photo: Getty Images.

Donald Trump at a press conference at Chequers during his 2018 visit to Britain. Photo: Getty Images.

A shared agenda: strengthening democracy at home

Leslie Vinjamuri

As Britain is set to leave the EU, many have argued that the US–UK relationship is bound to suffer a lasting setback, since a UK outside the EU cannot possibly be as important or helpful to the United States as one that is in.

To make matters worse, Trump’s policies on Iran, trade and climate are making it hard for the UK to align with its American ally. And Trump’s popularity among the UK electorate is reported to be as low as 21%, so the UK’s candidates for prime minister are likely to be cautious when considering how to engage this American president.

But there are plenty of reasons to be sanguine about the special relationship.

For starters, despite recent rhetorical attacks on NATO, the alliance continues to be the most important framework for transatlantic security, and the United Kingdom is America’s key partner in this. Even if the US decided to work outside this framework, Britain’s importance as an ally would more likely rise than fall, not least for its role in Europe. Added to this is of course the UK’s participation in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance between the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The depth of the US–UK economic relationship is also not to be underestimated. Each remains unsurpassed in its status as the largest foreign investor in the other’s economy. And, while the US is the UK’s largest export market, the UK is America’s 4th largest market for exports.

Still, the reality is that in a century where America’s primary geopolitical concern is China, its most important and influential partners will inevitably be those that have the most at stake in this context, and that can help broker this relationship. It is hardly surprising that one of Trump’s strongest relationships is with the Japanese prime minister.

The fact that the UK has held firm in its effort to carve out an independent, pragmatic and even technocratic approach to managing its economic relations with China is also proving to be a very real problem for its relationship with the United States.

But the stakes are high and both the US and the UK have a lot to lose if they allow their relationship to fray, even at the edges.

For this reason, the US and the UK should leave the tendentious and challenging issues of trade diplomacy aside during this visit and instead galvanize attention around a common agenda that emphasizes shared values and, especially, a commitment to strengthening democracy at home. Doing so would highlight the symbolic role of US–UK leadership and also elevate these two states as global leaders and standard setters in this area at a time when democracy is at risk across the globe.

Such an agenda should underscore the shared values and institutions of liberal democracy and, where possible, identify joint initiatives.

Three areas stand out. First, the US and UK should stress the importance of inclusive democracy, with respect to both civic and economic participation. Second, the US and UK governments should identify a shared commitment to securing the integrity of their electoral systems from foreign interference. Third, the US and UK should commit to securing robust regulations for social media and, especially, to tackling the problem of fake news.

To some, this may seem far down the totem pole from the high politics of negotiations with Iran or trade politics with China or preparing the ground for the tough fight ahead on the possibility of Section 232 auto tariffs. Ultimately, though, what distinguishes the US–UK relationship as an anchor for the West is a history of shared values. Cooperation that is based on this fundamental premise is more likely to spill over and create a sounder basis for collaboration on more challenging issues.

The Iran deal in crisis

Sanam Vakil

Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement and imposition of sanctions, including on Iran’s oil exports, have created a strategic divide between Europe and the United States. In spite of Brexit, Britain’s interests are more closely aligned with Europe than Washington on this issue.

Leaders of the three European countries party to the deal – Germany, France and the UK – see the nuclear agreement as an effective multilateral accord that must be upheld to protect regional security in the Middle East, wider nuclear non-proliferation, multilateralism and even Europe’s own sovereignty and relevance.

In contrast, Trump has argued that the nuclear deal doesn’t go far enough to constrain Iran’s nuclear program or address wider concerns regarding Tehran’s support for regional non-state actors and its ballistic missile programme. Trump’s stated strategy has been to double down on the use of sanctions to ultimately bring Tehran back to the negotiating table.

This has yet to yield any positive results. Instead, there has been a rapid increase in tensions, further compounded by Iran’s recent announcement that it intends to scale up some nuclear related activities unless it receives trade and investment benefits promised to it under the deal.

European countries have tried to safeguard the deal but with limited success. Beyond the symbolic support offered through the use of the blocking statute that protects European companies from the impact of US extraterritorial sanctions or the creation of Instex, a special purpose vehicle designed to facilitate humanitarian trade, Europe has neither been able stand up to Washington nor provide Tehran with meaningful trade and investment.

The UK, alongside its European partners, should push Trump to stave off this brewing crisis and make a diplomatic push to save the nuclear deal. A first step would be to appoint a special envoy that would attempt to arbitrate between both sides and convince Tehran of the risks and potential rewards of launching new negotiations.

Secondly, using the Joint Commission, the convening mechanism created by the nuclear agreement, Germany, France and the UK should begin discussions with Iran and the remaining signatories of the deal with the aim of gradually bringing Tehran and Washington back to the negotiating table to create improvements to the deal. Only through an ambitious yet meaningful diplomatic processes such as this one can European countries endeavour to forestall this coming crisis and protect their interests.

Blowing hot air on the climate emergency

Tim Benton

It is clear from a host of evidence-based reports in the last year that the world is on a trajectory that takes us into a difficult future. ‘Dangerous climate change’ will occur if the Paris agreement targets are not met, and environmental breakdown is a real danger through undermining our natural capital – whether degrading soils, air and water quality, or biodiversity loss and with it the underpinning services biodiversity provides for people and the planet.

‘Business as usual’ is not an option if we want to live in a sustainably, secure, just, equal and prosperous world. For every day that we don’t act, the costs of acting in future grow, and the problems accelerate in magnitude, diminishing our ability to deal with the issues.

Against this background, President Trump’s attitude to climate change in particular, and environmental protection in general, flies in the face of evidence and his attempts to undermine concerted global action fly in the face of reason. His comments and tweets about climate change being a ‘hoax’ or ‘scam’ illustrate a rejection of the rationalism that has shaped intellectual thought since the enlightenment – that academic enquiry can uncover the realities of how the world works, and that fact can be distinguished from fiction. They also indicate that money in the hand today takes precedence over all else; again, despite the evidence that profit today is being built on costs levied on the future.

Thankfully, the fact that environmental governance under President Trump appears to be going backwards seems to be building a greater sense of purpose, particularly in the young – who are the ones on whom the costs are being levied. The school climate strikes, spurred by Greta Thunberg, are occurring in over 100 countries with over a million students, while there is a rise in green activism with Extinction Rebellion.

These feelings are also entering mainstream politics with the Green surge in recent European elections. In addition, declarations of ‘climate emergencies’, at national and city level, including in the United States, are all signalling a rising sense of urgency and concern in society about environmental security. Indeed, perhaps more progress is now being made at non-federal level in the US because of the federal government’s attitude.

President Trump’s climate denial is an extreme rejection of rationalism, in favour of short-term economic self-interest as he seeks to roll back environmental regulations that he claims are hampering economic growth in the US. Paradoxically, however, he may be sowing the very seeds of social change that he is trying to avoid.