Trump’s election challenges Britain’s status as top US ally
London Letter: UK faces leaving EU as US president looks for new relationships
Britain’s prime minister Theresa May has advocated a tough line on Syria and an extension of sanctions on Russia. Photograph: Francois Lenoir/Reuters
It was right that the other leaders should prepare for the Brexit negotiations, she said, just as her government was getting ready to trigger article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty before the end of March next year.
The rest of the summit’s agenda was dominated by foreign policy, traditionally an area where Britain, along with France, has been a dominant voice at the European table. Just as she did at her first EU summit in October, May advocated a tough line on Syria and an extension of sanctions on Russia.
“President Assad and his backers in Russia and Iran bear responsibility for the tragedy in Aleppo. What we must be doing is ensuring that those who are responsible for these atrocities are held to account. We must also do all we can to ensure a ceasefire is secured so that the United Nations can help bring to safety the innocent people of Aleppo,” she said.
Robust approachAngela MerkelDonald TrumpUnited States
Since the end of the second World War, Britain has championed the liberal international order and used international institutions such as the United Nations and Nato to promote its interests and amplify its influence.
As America’s closest European ally, Britain has joined the US in every major military adventure over the past quarter century, most notably in Iraq and Afghanistan, sometimes at a huge political cost for British leaders.
At the same time, Britain’s EU membership helped to reshape the continent, leading the push towards the single market and championing the admission of formerly communist states in central and eastern Europe. And as the only serious military power in the EU, apart from France, Britain has had a powerful role in influencing European security and defence policy.
After June’s vote to leave the EU, British politicians trumpeted their determination that the country should remain outward-looking and internationalist, a beacon of free trade and, through Nato, an important player in European defence. For those who favoured leaving the EU, Brexit offered an opportunity to explore new markets outside Europe and to forge new trade deals.
Although Barack Obama famously threatened to relegate Britain to “the back of the queue” in trade negotiations, British officials were confident that his successor would take a more benign view.
When Hillary Clinton looked set for success, Whitehall expected her to press the EU to agree a good deal for Britain after Brexit, not least because she shared the US foreign policy establishment’s longstanding commitment to the transatlantic alliance.
Trump’s election has exploded such hopes, and London will face agonising choices as it seeks to maintain its status as Washington’s top ally. The president-elect has dismissed Nato as “obsolete” and sent mixed messages on Washington’s article 5 commitment to come to the aid of any Nato member state which comes under attack.
Trump’s enthusiasm for closer relations with Vladimir Putin could lead him to lift sanctions imposed on Russia after the annexation of Crimea. And he has threatened to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran, which lifted sanctions on that country and was celebrated in Britain and the rest of Europe as an important diplomatic breakthrough.
Trump’s confused and sometimes contradictory statements on foreign affairs make it difficult to predict the shape of his foreign policy as president.
But his admiration for strong leaders and for deal-making could make him responsive to calls from realist foreign policy thinkers such as Henry Kissinger for a new grand bargain with both Russia and China, which would reduce the importance of Europe – and Britain – as US allies.
In a leaked cable shortly after Trump’s election, Britain’s ambassador in Washington, Kim Darroch, suggested that Britain could exploit the incoming president’s inexperience to influence his foreign policy.
“The president-elect is above all an outsider and unknown quantity, whose campaign pronouncements may reveal his instincts, but will surely evolve and, particularly, be open to outside influence if pitched right. Having, we believe, built better relationships with his team than have the rest of Washington diplomatic corps, we should be well placed to do this,” he wrote.
It is more likely, however, that Britain faces the prospect of leaving the EU, and losing its influence in Brussels, at the same time as the American president roams the world in search of new special relationships based on crude power and interests rather than on history, sentiment or shared values.