The U.K. has traditionally enjoyed a prestigious role as a bridge between the United States and Europe. Its relations with both are nevertheless vulnerable and fragile, and as Britain’s relationship with the European Union continues to deteriorate over Brexit, the status of the transatlantic ‘special relationship’ is increasingly ambiguous following the election of Mr Trump.
The president-elect’s few forays into foreign policy appear to promise an overhaul of U.S. policy in areas and issues from immigration to environmental policy. The British government must remain proactive and pragmatic, and ensure that Britain remains engaged and active in the formulation of the policies that will define the Trump Administration over the next four years.
Donald Trump’s campaign was problematic and difficult to decipher-comments made in speeches, interviews, and media reports were frequently inconsistent, and did little to develop a consistent and coherent vision for his presidency. The few forays into foreign policy under a Trump Administration focused on vague, populist promises that tapped into voter disillusionment. Avoiding the articulation of a foreign policy protected Trump from a damaging comparison with the depth and breadth of Hillary Clinton’s experience in foreign affairs. The next few weeks before the inauguration in January will be crucial in defining the new direction for both the administration and its relations with international partners. The lack of a clear formulation for Mr Trump’s policy nevertheless poses both benefits and challenges.
The main benefit is that foreign states close to the USA may try and redefine its approach through limited pressure and guidance on key issues, particularly Syria and NATO. Trump is also not bound by policy commitments and a web of loyalties and agreements; the U.S. response to a changing world may therefore be more pragmatic and receptive to the needs of its partners. Current indications are not, however, positive. Criticism of NATO and its irrelevance, frequent comments in support of President Putin, and calls for further action against the Islamic State in Syria have all worried the global community. Although President Obama recently asserted that the Trump Administration may not be able to ‘unravel’ the complex nuclear agreement with Iran, and the Paris Agreement on climate change, intent may here be more dangerous than action.
The shock and surprise felt by world leaders stemmed not only from the result itself, but also from this lack of a clear, defined strategy on which advisors and leaders could base their response. This lack of a policy brings elements of ambiguity, uncertainty and the unknown- none of which are ways of settling international concern and markets. The main objective of the British government in the upcoming weeks should be to leverage its influence and its ‘special relationship’ with Washington to gauge and shape the future direction of the Trump Administration. Differences and concern should be left aside in the need for a pragmatic, and indeed rapid, response to the surprise victory of Mr Trump. As Mrs Merkel’s thinly-veiled antagonism within her congratulatory letter to the president-elect noted, cooperation must nevertheless be based on the shared values and respect for rights that has long bound cooperation across the Atlantic.
The distasteful and widely criticised rhetoric of the election campaign must instead be tempered by the realities of international affairs. In the analysis that followed the election, commentators have confidently assured both the domestic and international audience that the policies of the Trump Administration will be moderated by the practicalities of the office, and the realities of international relations. Institutional continuity, it is argued, will prevent the worst excesses of a Trumpian foreign policy.
The election of Donald Trump was a surprise to all but his supporters and a few, controversial political commentators. Celebrities and government leaders around the world piled criticism on the Trump campaign for its rhetoric and aggressive approach to key issues. Britain was not alone in its failure to pay sufficient attention to the candidacy of the now president-elect. As displayed in his victory speech, Mr Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric will likely be tamed by both the realities of office and the need to collaborate and compromise, and reunite a country wracked by deep and passionate social divisions. Pundits have nevertheless been quick to fan the flames of anxiety by suggesting that Trump’s relations with international partners may have been damaged by pre-election comments.
That the UK-US relationship under the new administration may be off to a rocky start was further highlighted by the government’s collective hand-wringing over the perceived slight that Mrs May was apparently only the ninth world leader to be called after the election results. On a recent trip to visit the president-elect in New York, Nigel Farage claimed that Mr Trump’s team haven’t forgotten the comments made by world leaders- concern in the Conservative Party that Mr Farage may be attempting to position himself as a mediator should not detract from the need to act, and act quickly.
The British government needs to respond quickly to repair any damaged bridges in bilateral relations with the United States. The Foreign Secretary has already spoken warmly of the president-elect, and has criticised the response to his electoral victory. The government must nevertheless achieve a careful balance between the need to ensure reconciliation, with the potential effects of alienating European Union states who now fear the broader implications of an isolationist, reactionary ally across the Atlantic. If Mr Trump follows through with only a few of his less controversial foreign policy objectives, tensions with the European Union are certain to rise.
The Foreign Secretary and the government will now have the unenviable task of achieving this delicate balance, and preserving Britain’s seat at both tables for the foreseeable future. Selecting to focus on either the United States or the European Union may jeopardise Britain’s relations with the other, at a point in which any uncertainty will only aggravate a complex situation.
Owain Richards is a student at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna and an Intern at the Bow Group