Brexit means the UK is uncomfortably fastened to the most volatile of US administrations in a century, says Paris Gourtsoyannis
When Theresa May took off from Washington on Saturday morning, her staff were hailing her visit to the US capital as a triumph. Within hours of landing at her next stop in Turkey, it had descended into chaos. By the time she arrived home in the UK on Saturday night, she was facing a potential disaster. The Prime Minister has had a quick and difficult lesson in what the next four years of UK-US diplomacy will be like as she ties her government tightly to that of Donald Trump - the most volatile and unpredictable US administration in well over a century.
If the events of the weekend prove anything, it is that the zombie concept of the ‘special relationship’ is nothing more that a popular myth among Atlanticist conservatives on this side of the pond.
While Mr Trump sought to associate himself with the populist thrill of Brexit during his election campaign, his doctrine of “America First” means the only practical use he has for the Prime Minister is legitimacy. By rushing to his side within days of his inauguration, Mrs May offered the president the opportunity to appear statesmanlike just as an outraged Mexican president was calling off his own visit.
In American debate, the special relationship is barely mentioned. The New York Times carried little prominent coverage of the Prime Minister’s visit, barring a profile of Mrs May that focused on her lack of a twitter account and inaccurately claimed that Mr Trump’s enthusiasm for Brexit was awkward for her - far from it. The Wall Street Journal put Mrs May’s claim in their joint press conference that Mr Trump was “100 percent behind NATO” on their front page, but openly questioning its accuracy. Both questions from UK journalists at the set-piece event were about the special relationship. Both questions from US journalists were about far more important foreign ties: the conflict with Mexico over the border wall, and the future of sanctions on Russia.
Like the two-way mirror in a police interrogation room, the special relationship is an object of the UK’s self-image, is utterly unbreakable no matter what furniture is thrown at it, and ultimately imprisoning. Brexit has made it even more so.
The Prime Minister’s “no deal is better than a bad deal” rhetoric means the UK may be giving up trading terms with its largest market, the destination of 44% of its exports. Trade agreements with notoriously bureaucratic and protectionist emerging markets like India are a long-term aspiration, and can’t hope to replace the loss of trade if the UK does enter punishing WTO trade terms. Mrs May is a hostage of the EU referendum, and so is her government’s foreign policy.
Speaking to me last week, a former UK ambassador to Georgia - a place where a Trump-Putin rapprochement isn’t just a debating point - warned that if the UK could find itself with “one foot on the European continent, one foot on the American continent, as they slowly drift apart”.
The danger of being pulled in unwanted directions is greater because this is no ordinary administration. It is only beginning to emerge how much power is wielded by Steve Bannon, the anarcho-capitalist chieftain of the white-supremacist so-called ‘alt-right’. Mr Bannon may have even more influence over Trump than the president’s other key adviser, his son-in-law Jared Kushner. He has been placed on the National Security Council at the expense of the US director of intelligence and head of the armed forces. The coterie of individuals at the heart of Mr Trump’s decision-making machine is extremely narrow, and because none of its members come from the traditional wellsprings of American power, it has few if any institutional connections.
Indeed, the way the Oval Office is conducting itself seems to reflect not just its isolation from the rest of government, but Mr Bannon’s outright hostility to it. Some hold up key cabinet positions as evidence that Mr Trump will govern responsibly. General James Mattis has opposed a reintroduction of torture, and the president claims he will defer to him. Rex Tillerson, still to be confirmed as Secretary of State, has declared his strong support for NATO and condemned Russian aggression.
But both men were sidelined as the Oval Office made their jobs harder, damaging military cooperation with Middle Eastern allies as Iraqi troops fight Daesh in Mosul, and fuelling resentment of the America in the Muslim world. Other departments weren’t asked for input on the order. The Secretary of Homeland Security, whose department must enforce it, was reportedly being briefed as live footage of the signing ceremony aired.
A post-Brexit chumocracy of a special relationship might sound ideal in those circumstances. Boris Johnson claims he secured an exemption for UK dual nationals after reportedly ringing up Mr Kushner. The executive might work that way, but the machinery of government doesn’t - as the utter confusion in US Embassies and the State Department over the scope of the order proves. Meanwhile, the Canadian government, which was immediately critical of the travel ban, went through institutional channels and secured the same exemption.
The order which is the source of all the controversy lasts 90 days for ordinary travellers, and 120 days for Syrian refugees. But the permanent system of “extreme vetting” that follows it could be just as difficult for dual nationals to clear as it was over the weekend, when children and the very old were held for hours of checks.
Shocked, perhaps, but no-one should be surprised - this was part of the Trump manifesto, and came at the end of his first week. He has still to act on his claim that NATO is “obsolete” or that climate change is a Chinese-invented hoax on American industry. The UK’s most important relationship as it leaves the EU could be a running sore up until Mr Trump arrives for his state visit this year - and for the next four years, too.