Brexiteers, take note: the US under President Donald Trump doesn’t do free trade or special relationships, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis.
Of all the dismal scraps of news clogging the blocked drain that is Brexit, none has done as much damage to the reeking plumbing as Donald Trump’s trade war against America’s own allies – including the UK.
The two things aren’t directly linked; in fact, what’s truly devastating is just how incidental Brexit Britain is to President Trump’s attack on the global system of free trade. In a looming trade war, a UK-US agreement would be mere collateral damage.
A free trade deal with the United States was the central pillar of ‘Global Britain’. In the eyes of Brexiteers, freeing the UK from the EU would allow it to fully embrace the transatlantic relationship in a way not seen since Churchill and Roosevelt sat across from one another. For all the talk of re-engaging with the Commonwealth, the road to the creation of an Anglosphere leads to Washington.
It was the depth of emotional attachment to that vision that made Barack Obama’s “back of the queue” snub one of the central points of the referendum campaign. But in very practical economic terms, it is absolutely true that the only way to make leaving the biggest trading block in the world pay is to boost trade with the world’s biggest economy.
It just isn’t going to happen. There will be no trade deal with Trump – not in any form that brings advantages to the UK. The Trump administration doesn’t do free trade, and it doesn’t do special relationships. When the US President said he put America First, it turns out he meant it. When US trade experts warned that his administration would leverage every advantage to get its way, it turns out they were right.
Consider that in the aftermath of the announcement of steel and aluminium tariffs, it emerged that US officials suggested to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that Nafta – currently being re-negotiated at Trump’s behest – should be put on a five-year rolling basis. The president’s bombast about ripping up the deal may be empty, but from his negotiators, this is confirmation of the desire to dismantle one of the world’s most successful trade agreements. You don’t go to the altar to say “for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, but we’ll review everything in a few years”.
So profound is Trump’s detestation of free trade as we know it that he is using regulations dating back to the Cold War to effectively accuse Canada and the EU of sabotaging the US defence industry through their steel and aluminium.
The charge pushed Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – who has so far walked a tightrope of offering tougher criticism of Washington than the UK, but also pursuing deeper engagement – to call the tariffs an affront to the 100 years of Canadian war dead, killed alongside American comrades on the beaches and in the trenches. Stronger rhetoric than that doesn’t come out of Ottawa.
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Trudeau’s comments are apt because the rupture is more profound than trade. Michael McFaul, who served as US Ambassador to Russia between 2012 and 2014, summed it up in a post on Twitter, stating: “When I wrote about Putin wanting Trump to win, never could Putin have imagined that a President Trump would be declaring our closest allies national security threats.” A US president has shown himself willing to undermine the Western alliance so that fewer German-made cars are driven on American streets.
Brexiteers can and will still argue, in the face of all the evidence, that the process of getting the UK out of the EU with its shirt can still be salvaged. But Trump’s trade war isn’t about the process, it’s about the world that the UK will be dumped into on Brexit day.
Trump wants a world where major powers play off one another for advantage – in trade, diplomacy and security. The argument that British influence was bolstered by EU solidarity (such as it is) has only grown since 2016.
There is always hope that things could improve under the next governments in London and in Washington.
But for now, the special relationship, if not quite dead, is in a vegetative state. So too are the Brexit delusions of a transatlantic Anglosphere. We have Donald Trump to thank, or curse, for both.