I knew you were trouble: the US-UK ‘Special Relationship’ and Donald Trump

Theresa May recently made the case for a renewed Special Relationship with the United States under President Trump. She argues that the United Kingdom shares “the burden” of leading the free world with the United States. She goes on to say that the UK and US won the Cold War by winning “the war of ideas,” and proving that “open, liberal, democratic societies will always defeat those that are closed, coercive, and cruel.”

It might not have been a long time since President Trump assumed office, but based on his immigration policies, including the travel ban on seven majority Muslim countries, and his views on torture; that we should “fight fire with fire,” that words like closed, coercive, and cruel describe his approaches to government much better than words like open, liberal, and democratic.

President Trump calls on a member of the media for questions.

In the wake of Trump’s travel ban, which, among other things, put a halt to all Syrian refugees coming into the country. Theresa May has rejected calls to block Trump’s state visit, saying to MPs that the Labour Leader and Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn, “can lead a protest, I’m leading a country.” Although May recently called Trump’s travel ban “divisive and wrong,” she has done very little to openly condemn Trump’s policy. Also worryingly silent on the matter is the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, whose most recent comments on Trump were to urge MPs to stop “pointlessly demonising him” through comparisons to fascists leaders, including Hitler. While Trump was elected, and leaders like Hitler often used their power to avoid needing to run for election again, they were, at one point, elected. Boris Johnson, a published historian, would do well to remember this. Now, while comparing Trump to Hitler might be reductive, the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom should have more to say about such a divisive President than “stop saying mean things about him.” Johnson should be challenging Trump’s policies whenever he can, if he wants this Special Relationship to be one between equals, of countries that are open, liberal, and democratic.

And this, in a way, is what senior figures in the British government either don’t understand or won’t admit; the Special Relationship between us and the US will not be one of equals. Between Michael Gove’s sycophantic interview with Trump, wherein he asked, desperate for a pat on the back, if we were “at the front of the queue” for trade deals, to the lack of an open challenge on Trump’s policies from the government, it’s easy to get the impression that this government needs the US more than the US needs them. This necessity for a trade deal with the US has been stressed by Brexiteers across the nation, something that seems unlikely given Trump’s proven record as protectionist and isolationist, and his already withdrawing from TPP. As much as Brexiteers like Michael Gove will constantly ask Trump if we’re at the front of the queue or not, to expect him to put us there seems naïve given all that’s known about his economic philosophies.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May

When meeting with Trump, it was argued that the Prime Minister “decided to give priority to the relationship with America even if it means alienating traditional European allies.” However, the UK government going ahead with Brexit seems to have already alienated some of those European allies. In her speech in Philadelphia, the Prime Minister “emphasized her ideological affinity with the Republican Party,” saying that she spoke to them as a fellow Conservative who believes in “the same principles that underpin the agenda of your Party.” Again, looking at Trump’s record since taking office, I can’t help but wonder which values Theresa May would like to show an affinity with, given the Republican agenda is now one of explicit division and bigotry.

The Economist explains that this government’s hurry to embrace the United States comes from the idea that “Brexit compels Britain’s leaders to show that the country has powerful allies.” After her meeting with the President, the Prime Minister flew for one day visit to Turkey. Despite the political tensions in Turkey since the failed coup, Mrs. May said she had “no particular plans” to raise human rights concerns on her visit, in spite of the imprisonment of journalists and dissidents “in a crackdown that has intensified since the failed coup.” to say nothing of the desperate need for a British-American trade deal to be agreed. Given these are the “powerful allies” the Conservative government is aligning itself with, it’s no wonder that the Prime Minister is so focused on keeping close to Trump, and Michael Gove was so desperate to know if we were at the front of the queue during his interview with the President. Without close ties to the US in the wake of Brexit, it isn’t difficult to imagine the UK being out in the wilderness for a while.

The problem with such a desperate need to renew the Special Relationship is that doing so makes it difficult to criticise the policies of Trump’s government. At the end of January, protests took place all across the country, as a response to the UK government’s “weak response to Trump’s ban and the apparent prioritising of the UK’s renewed special relationship with the US.”

If the Prime Minister really wishes to show that open and liberal democratic societies will triumph over those that are coercive and cruel, she must find the courage to criticise and condemn the actions of governments that are driving their societies in that direction. Even when they have been a close ally for a long time, even if we may need them further down the line for a trade deal in the wake of Brexit, to not challenge these policies shows a profound lack of the values that the Prime Minister argues bond our country with the United States. But then, a lack of those values would just be one more thing that Mrs May has in common with President Trump.

In her speech, the Prime Minister says to Americans they will renew their nation “just as we renew ours,” it’s difficult to not be concerned about these renewed nations; what they’ll look like, what they’ll say, and, more importantly, what they won’t say. She says it is “in our national interest” to lead the world, but one can’t help but be concerned about the direction that the world will be going when President Trump is the co-pilot.

The Prime Minister also quotes Churchill in her speech, saying “we must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom.” It must be the inability to do so in fearless tones that has stopped her government from openly condemning the policies of the new President of the United the States.