11 November 2016

With President Trump, flattery is the UK’s best weapon


Back in January, Britain’s politicians were busy demanding that Donald Trump be banned from entering the country. Now, they’re fretting about how long he took to call them.

The UK – and its government in particular – now finds itself in an awkward situation.

Like the rest of the world, it viewed the prospect of a Trump victory with the deepest alarm. And like the rest of the world, it suddenly finds itself desperate to win his goodwill and cooperation.

So how can Britain handle the unique challenges of building a relationship – ideally even a special relationship – with President Trump?

The key to everything, as so often with presidents and prime ministers, will be Theresa May’s personal connection to America’s new leader.

For a start, the prime minister needs to prevent foolish criticisms of Trump from her Cabinet. Last week on Question Time, Business Secretary Sajid Javid said of the next president: “I’m not going to pick sides, but I look forward to working with her.”

It was a good line – but for a thin-skinned figure like Trump, his ego is no laughing matter. As his Twitter timeline attests, the new president is good at throwing personal insults but very bad at taking them.

Here, May must learn from the errors of her predecessor. Earlier this year, when David Cameron and Sadiq Khan casually criticized Trump. Trump was furious. He warned Cameron that “I will remember those statements.”

By contrast, consider the high praise with which Trump has adorned Vladimir Putin. That’s partly come about because Putin knows that Trump likes to be praised.

So to set things off on a good footing, May needs to swallow her scruples and to lay out the red carpet. In particular, she should invite Trump and his senior leadership team to the UK to meet government officials.

That will also give Britain opportunity to show Trump the special relationship’s core benefits for the United States: diplomatic, economic, and intelligence-related cooperation.

May should also outline how Britain’s relationship with the European Union can help the United States. Trump favoured Brexit, but he’ll quickly learn that dealing with France and Germany is more complicated than dealing with the EU.

In particular, Trump and Angela Merkel were always unlikely to get along – even before her pointed reaction to his election victory. They are both too stubborn. So May can benefit both Britain and the United States by acting as an interlocutor.

There are, of course, issues on which Britain and America will have to agree to disagree. As Bill Emmott noted on CapX this week, President Trump will take a different approach to both Barack Obama and to Britain on climate change, the Iran nuclear deal and global trade.

On climate change, international binding agreements are likely to fall to the wayside. Trump’s defining constituency is blue-collar Americans, and he will strongly oppose any arrangements that increase regulation on energy-related jobs.

On global trade, Trump’s protectionism is also likely to hamper multi-party trade deals. That may cause problems for Britain.

Consider the UK’s participation in the Asia Investment and Infrastructure Bank, part of its push for Chinese investment. That, in Trump’s eyes, may align Britain with China against US interests. Theresa May might be wise to pre-empt that by quietly leaving the AIIB, even if it upsets China: the relationship with America is more important.

On Iran, there’s more room for optimism. Once Trump receives his high-detail intelligence and security briefings (probably today), he’ll realize that trashing the Iran deal is more complicated than simply repeating his campaign line: “It’s the worst deal in history.”

If he tones down his approach, the UK should offer support for more robust sanctions on Iranian ballistic missile research. That would win US gratitude and show Trump that the UK is a vital partner.

Then there is trade. In his piece, Emmott argued that Trump’s thinking on a UK-US trade deal is likely to be “closer to that of Nigel Farage than to David Davis or Liam Fox”.

Actually, I respectfully disagree. As he showed during the election campaign, Trump’s concern is not about trade per se, but about trade with low-value export markets like China and Mexico.

He may not be a fan of the TTIP deal with Europe, or the TPP deal with Asia, but there is no reason why Trump would not support a deal between two economies as advanced as the UK and US, especially given their existing connections.

Moreover, as he enters office, Trump will be looking for something to assuage fears among America’s allies – and among many US citizens – that he is an irrational actor.

A trade deal would tick that box, offering him a diplomatic success that plays well at home and abroad – and allowing him to prove that his vision of bilateral cooperation, of country-to-country deals, works better than multilateral cooperation.

Above all, Britain should remember that Trump’s instincts are business-centric. Instead of raising concerns like climate change, May should focus on issues of mutual interest. And that may actually include Russia. At present, Trump likes President Putin and has a distinct lack of concern about the Syrian civil war.

But as he receives more in-depth intelligence briefings, he may start to realise that Putin is deliberately undercutting American credibility – and prestige – in the Middle East. Britain can encourage such thinking, though its credibility would be strengthened by restraining London’s own ties with Russian financial interests.

Ultimately, the special relationship is and always must be built on mutual interest. The task for Theresa May must be to show the great negotiator that America’s alliance with Britain is still one hell of a deal.

Tom Rogan is a foreign policy columnist for National Review, a domestic policy columnist for Opportunity Lives, a former panellist on The McLaughlin Group and a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute.