LONDON – British Prime Minister Theresa May’s dash to the United States seemed to have been a great success when she left Washington on Jan. 28.
May’s speech to leading Republicans in Philadelphia the day before had gone down well. She had received a warm welcome from President Donald Trump and been photographed with the president holding her hand (although it was later reported that he had grasped her hand as he has a phobia about going down steps or a slope without a handrail). He had accepted the invitation to pay an early state visit to the United Kingdom and expressed his affection for Britain. She seemed to have won him over to support NATO and to have obtained a promise of an early trade agreement after Brexit.
But by the time she had got to Ankara and completed her talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan her triumph looked hollow. She had hardly left the White House before Trump issued his executive order banning from entry into the U.S. people from seven Middle East and African countries for 90 days and refugees for 120 days. The U.S. would no longer welcome refugees despite its international obligations and the sufferings of so many refugees, which should arouse compassion.
When May was asked at her news conference in Ankara about the president’s executive order she was unprepared and could only say woodenly and obviously that U.S. policies on immigration and refugees were matters for the U.S. to decide. She did not say whether Trump forewarned her. Some hours later a statement, considered by some here as inadequate, was issued from her office distancing her from these executive orders.
The opposition in the U.S. to Trump’s immigration orders and the way in which they have been implemented was reflected in public protests in Britain. A petition against the invitation to Trump to pay an early state visit soon collected nearly 2 million signatures.
The British media noted that no other U.S. president had been invited so soon after his inauguration. The speed of the invitation was unprecedented and fears were expressed that the queen could be embarrassed, especially if the atmosphere of the visit was marred by public protests, although it was noted that other state visits had been marked by demonstrations against the visiting head of state.
Reports from Washington suggested that Trump’s entourage had warned against the involvement of the prince of Wales in receiving the president in Britain on the grounds that he might “blow up” if Prince Charles lectured him on climate change. The prince is an eloquent supporter of the Paris Agreement on climate change, which is endorsed by the British government and most Britons, whereas Trump has publicly asserted that global warming is a Chinese hoax.
May has announced that the state visit will go ahead despite public protests, and it is difficult to see how the invitation could be withdrawn without huge loss of face and ill feeling. But perhaps the date of the visit might slip from summer to the autumn in the hope that anti-Trump feeling may die down. This, however, looks unlikely if as expected Trump continues to roll out ever more contentious policies affecting human rights.
May’s main aim in undertaking her mission to America was to strengthen the “special relationship” between Britain and the U.S., even though Britain is the junior partner. This seemed particularly important when Britain was starting the process of leaving the European Union. Accordingly she wanted to emphasize not only the security and economic ties between Britain and the U.S. but also the values we share. Unfortunately Trump does not seem to share at least some of the principles supported by Britain. The vast majority here, for instance, reject his apparent endorsement of torture.
May was pleased by the fact that she seemed to have won over the president to support NATO, but while he did not demur when she said he had agreed, he did not repeat his commitment publicly. The absence of public references to sanctions against Russia because of Russian aggression against Ukraine suggested that Trump still harbors illusions about doing a “deal” with President Vladimir Putin.
Trump’s support for an early trade deal looks hollow. He is a protectionist while May supports free trade and wants to uphold the principles adopted by the World Trade Organization. Trump will not welcome any expansion of British car exports to the U.S. market. British farmers do not want to be overwhelmed by U.S. exports of agricultural products. Nor will British consumers be likely to welcome products whose standards differ from those enforced here.
The British prime minister’s hasty trip to Washington will not have endeared her to European leaders, who have so far been much more cautious. Indeed, Trump’s public criticism of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, his declared contempt for the European Union and his welcome for Brexit may well make the forthcoming negotiations on a new relationship between Britain and the EU more difficult.
In Britain inevitably our eyes are focused on Europe and the North Atlantic, and we tend to overlook the growing dangers in the Far East. The Trans-Pacific Partnership seemed to tie America more closely to Pacific countries and their economies. Trump’s decision to ditch it inevitably pushes America’s Asian partners toward a closer economic relationship with China. Trump’s apparent flirtation with Taiwan, saber-rattling in relation to disputed islands in the South China Sea and threats of a trade war with China should not be ignored here.
We have yet to see how many of Trump’s policies will unfold and how far U.S. constitutional and legal processes as well as domestic opposition may restrain their implementation. But however distasteful and dangerous Trump’s policies may be, he has been elected for four years and Britain has to find a way of getting on with him without too much damage to its interests and values.
Hugh Cortazzi was Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.
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