Trump’s Visit: A Strain on the Special Relationship

As Air Force One glided over the Atlantic, a grandiose reception was being prepared. Touching down on British land on 12th July, London’s streets had begun to brim with dissent.

The stone fort of Windsor Castle was not enough to protect the President from the wave of protests that unfolded, with the inflatable Trump dominating both Parliament Square and global news headlines. Thousands lined the streets of London, demonstrating against bigotry, racism and economic nationalism. In January 2018, YouGov found that only 11% of Brits believed that he had been a good President. Yet whilst public outrage at the President’s politics has strained the ‘special relationship’, the biggest test of all comes from The Donald himself.

The President, visiting British shores to strengthen the ‘special relationship’, seems only to have further undermined it. Mrs May’s claims of an “open Britain” hang by a thread following the President’s comment that she has “killed” all chance of a US free trade deal. A pillar has thus fallen from the government’s Brexit White Paper; America would be unwilling to enhance its trade network whilst Britain remains inextricably tied to Europe, though Trump did flip flop later on this issue.

Yet Mr Trump went one further; not only undermining Brexit, but the pillars of the government itself. The hard Brexiteers are fleeing the Cabinet to form a revolutionary attack on Mrs May, spearheaded by Boris Johnson. Trump has endorsed such fragility in the government sphere, supporting the Little Englanders in their quest to bring down the government. In his interview with The Sun, he seemed to deride May’s premiership by heralding Boris Johnson’s potential to make a “great Prime Minister”.

The President’s antagonism towards European bureaucracy is not a new phenomenon. It is difficult to reconcile his ‘America First’ rhetoric with the European Union; nationalism is superseded by integration. Hostility is largely centred around the EU’s superpower, Germany. Trump labelled them “currency manipulators” for using a cheap euro to boost German automobile exports to the US, following up on his mercantilist ideology with a proposition to drop the 25% tariff exemption on EU steel.

Europe is a project that Trump hopes will crumble. In a stark contrast to Obama’s exclamation that the EU is “one of the great political and economic achievements of human history”, integrating a war-torn continent into a united system for stability and prosperity, Trump’s first ever meeting with a foreign politician was with the face of Brexit himself: Farage. Describing the EU as “a vehicle for Germany”, Trump’s reasoning for Brexit becomes ever more clear: a country leaving the shackles of foreign bureaucracy to create its own path in the world, evident is his animosity towards the post-war global institutions that the US itself is a part of – NATO, WTO and the UN. Multinational organisations reduce national autonomy, and thus ideology – more so than a dislike of the Germans – is the cause of his intent for a hard Brexit.

Trump is a friend of Brexit. Yet he must also be a friend of British political stability. The incongruence of the two means he must choose whether to prioritise the stability of a key strategic ally, or the fervent nationalism that runs through his veins. Strains on the special relationship have been a common theme since WW2; Wilson refused Lyndon B. Johnson’s request for British troops in Vietnam, and even Thatcher criticised her political companion Reagan following his invasion of Grenada. The UK-US alliance is here to stay – yet if Trump continues to value his ideology above British stability, further tensions are likely to follow.


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