Thomas Raines
Research Fellow and Programme Manager, Europe Programme
This is London’s geopolitical reality now: caught between a retrograde American administration with which it no longer shares a world view and a frustrated Europe it is trying to divorce.
Photo by Getty Images.Photo by Getty Images.

President Trump. European governments are just beginning to digest those words. For Britain in particular, this is a political and strategic shock. The twin pillars of British foreign policy for the last 40 years have been, on the one hand, a close relationship with an Atlanticist United States committed to European security, and on the other, active engagement in shaping the direction of European integration. In less than five months, both pillars have been reduced to rubble by rebellious electorates unhappy with the status quo.

Since 1945, Britain has sought to promote its interests by maintaining and deepening the liberal international order. The post-war settlement gave the UK a position of influence in international institutions which it has retained despite a relative decline in its power. This privileged position has been matched by a history, tradition and self-image among much of the political class which views a British role in world affairs as both natural and necessary, however mixed the results have been. The decision to leave the EU was a repudiation of this approach, which was why most of the foreign policy establishment thought it a terrible idea.

The relationship between Britain and America has been at the core of this role. For much of that time, Britain has been the US’s leading ally, particularly on matters of international security. The UK has partnered America in every major military intervention of the last 25 years: from the Gulf, to Afghanistan, to Iraq, to Libya. Even while the US refocused on the Asia-Pacific, Britain remained an important and occasionally essential partner. The UK’s parliamentary vote against attacking Assad effectively derailed US plans to do so.

For the last few years, meetings between UK prime minister and the US president have been characterised by British status anxiety over whether the relationship is still ‘special’. This has led to some almost comic incidents, like the mismatch in diplomatic gifts at the first meeting of Barack Obama and Gordon Brown. Two days after the election of Trump, the Daily Mirror splashed with the revelation that Theresa May was only the ninth world leader to speak to Donald Trump.

How Number 10 may long for the days when diplomatic protocol was the biggest source of hand-wringing. The deep cooperation between the governments – particularly on security and intelligence – has been nurtured by shared values and a similar world view. With Trump in the White House, however, the UK faces the prospect of a US which is actively undermining its main international goals. On countless issues Trump is diametrically opposed to the British approach.

The UK government has long supported multilateral efforts to manage climate change. Donald Trump claims climate change was invented by the Chinese to undermine US competitiveness. The UK government has championed sanctions to deter Russian aggression. Trump views Putin as a stablemate. Theresa May wants to be a champion of free trade. Trump is a frustrated protectionist railing against every trade acronym he can grasp: anti-NAFTA, anti-TPP, anti-WTO. There is a chasm between Britain’s outlook and the positions Trump has taken in the campaign, and this is without considering his wider politics with which many UK politicians on all sides will be deeply uncomfortable. Boris Johnson’s upbeat tone cannot hide that fact that if Trump’s foreign policy follows his campaign rhetoric, clashes are inevitable.

Trump’s victory also makes the context for Brexit more challenging. Had she been elected Hillary Clinton would likely have been a strong advocate for a Brexit settlement which caused the least political and economic disruption. As secretary of state, she has established relationships and political credibility with European leaders and broadly shared the same values. She cared about the future of the EU and the unity of the West.

Trump meanwhile has been a champion of Brexit from the comfort of the other side of the Atlantic. He celebrated the outcome of Britain's referendum, which most EU leaders view as a disaster. His views on Russia, on NATO, on climate change, all put him at odds with the majority of Europe's leaders and many of the things they have been working for. He is viewed with contempt from many capitals for the rhetoric of his campaign. The best the UK can hope for is that EU leaders, worried about the direction of the US, feel now is not the time to distance themselves further from the United Kingdom.

But at this early stage there is little sign of that, and some evidence that attitudes to handling the Trump administration may become a source of division between Britain and its EU partners. The British government’s approach to Trump’s victory already appears more realist than many others in Europe. Theresa May’s government will look for areas where they can work together, avoid public criticism, and try to build an effective working relationship with incoming officials in the hope that the UK can wield some influence on the direction of US policy. It is also conceivable that with the support of pro-free trade Congressional Republicans, a UK-US bilateral trade deal may be possible in lieu of TTIP, although the UK is still a long way from being in a position to be able to negotiate this and it would involve difficult compromises on both sides.

There is some logic to this approach: better to be an ally Trump listens to than join critics he’ll ignore. But it will be an uncomfortable position. Trump’s rhetoric creates justified public pressure in Britain to criticize him or disavow his positions. It also risks distancing May from leaders in Europe with whom, Brexit aside, she is a more natural political partner on foreign policy issues.  Even in their messages of congratulations to Trump there was daylight visible between the pragmatic tone of Theresa May and the principled caution of Angela Merkel. Foreign secretary Boris Johnson declined to attend a special meeting of EU foreign ministers on Sunday to discuss the outcome of the election, dodging what he felt would be a collective moan.

Theresa May’s efforts to be sanguine about this new context for Britain are stretching credibility. In her Mansion House speech, she spoke of Britain’s ‘historic global opportunity’ to lead the world in meeting international challenges. The reality is rather starker. Britain is caught between a retrograde American administration with which it no longer shares a world view and a frustrated Europe it is trying to divorce. This is not a recipe for international influence.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback