British officials say Theresa May hopes to win a firm commitment from Donald Trump to a US-UK trade deal
British officials say Theresa May hopes to win a firm commitment from Donald Trump to a US-UK trade deal © PA

The UK straddles the Atlantic. It may be physically in Europe but it has often felt spiritually closer to the US. The notion of a “special relationship” between the two nations, first defined by Sir Winston Churchill 70 years ago, has become a constant for successive British governments. Britain may not exert significant policy influence in Washington, but maintaining close relations preoccupies Westminster.

It is therefore no surprise that Prime Minister Theresa May is planning to visit Donald Trump soon after his inauguration. She is aware that Mr Trump will be no ordinary president and some other leaders may treat the incoming administration cautiously. Here lies a potential opportunity for Mrs May: creating a bond with the new president could boost her limited credentials as an international leader.

Britain’s foreign policy in modern times has rested on two foundations: EU membership and being an American ally. Brexit will remove one of these alliances so Mrs May cannot afford to damage the other. Whereas Europe has been an economic and political anchor for the UK, the US relationship has focused on security. The prime minister should, however, tread carefully. The unpredictable nature of the Trump presidency will complicate any special relationship.

Some of the UK government’s efforts to please Mr Trump’s team so far have been uncomfortable. After condemning Israeli settlements in a vote at the UN Security Council, it was odd then to launch a public attack on John Kerry, the outgoing US secretary of state, for focusing solely on this issue. The prime minister is of course right that there are other significant matters in the Israel-Palestine dispute, but this looked like a blatant attempt to curry favour.

Recent history provides some useful lessons in how not to conduct US-UK relations. Former British prime minister Tony Blair’s determination to align himself with George W Bush, the former US president, played a significant role in the rush to war in Iraq. This ultimately damaged the standing of both nations. Cosying up to the US at all costs is unwise.

The UK government should focus on securing transatlantic ties based on mutual interest. Britain has much to offer on intelligence and security, for example — two core areas of interest to Mr Trump. Mrs May must use any influence over the Trump administration to urge a move away from the president-elect’s campaign rhetoric on Nato. He has already pulled away from the western orthodoxy on climate change and it could be dangerous if the same happened on the security of Europe.

Trade is just as pressing an issue. The rapid negotiation of a UK-US free-trade deal is vital if Mrs May is to convince the world that Brexit can be a success. But there are different world views: Mrs May has said that the UK will become “the most passionate, enthusiastic and convinced” supporter of free trade after Brexit. Mr Trump and his administration, on the other hand, talk of tariffs and raising barriers. The prime minister has to hope he will not look to “steal trade” from the UK, in the words of his commerce secretary. 

In an ideal world, Mrs May would fashion herself a unique role: pulling Mr Trump away from his populist instincts and encouraging a more enlightened view of the transatlantic relationship. But she should be prepared to swap positivism for pragmatism. Mr Trump has shown little interest in sustainable long-term partnerships. His past behaviour suggests he will work with and use the UK as long as it suits him. Mrs May will have to be equally hard-headed.

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