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Brexit in the time of Trump

by Sam Ashworth-Hayes | 14.11.2016

It is true that governments have to deal with the foreign leaders that exist, not the ones they would like, and that this applies above all to the UK’s handling of a Trump presidency. Yet when doing so, realism is essential. The fall of the White House into the hands of professed protectionists puts Britain at a big disadvantage, however “special” a relationship Nigel Farage and others may think we can have.

The dominant initial effect of a Trump presidency will be uncertainty. Trump campaigned on a slew of outrageous policy statements that were proffered one day and retracted the next. What remained was always “negotiable”. Yet some of his positions looked and sounded firm, for his position on them was consistent. One was his stance on immigration, whether or not ground on the wall with Mexico is ever broken. The other was his view of trade.

In that combination, you might say, he stands close to the Brexiteers. The hard Brexit so many want is also about taking back control of borders. Yet all but Farage claim to want to do so in the cause of freer trade. They want to leave the world’s largest trade bloc and replace all the EU’s existing trade deals with ones they claim will be freer. That is not Trump’s stance.

Trump’s election has almost certainly killed off the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He has threatened to pull out of the World Trade Organization, threatened to ramp up tariffs against China, pledged to renegotiate NAFTA – and threatened to pull out of that too.

The US has been the most powerful champion of free trade for decades. But Trump rails that free trade has emasculated the US economy. If he sets America on a path to protectionism, others may well follow. For a trading nation such as Britain, this could be particularly bad news.

If there is some hope for Britain in this, it lies in the targeting of Trump’s comments. His animosity towards free trade appears to be motivated by the size of America’s trade deficits, and the idea that partner nations undercut American wages — which Britain surely doesn’t. With US wages now rising at their fastest rate in a decade and unemployment now low, he may not treat protectionism as a priority until or unless a recession intervenes in the US.

On security too, Trump undermines old certainties. His apparent coolness towards NATO puts a cornerstone of British security at risk, and could destabilise Europe’s eastern border. While some commentators have suggested this will play into our hands, any nominal gain in leverage will be offset by geopolitical instability.

More broadly, it will be interesting to see precisely what Moscow makes of the president-elect. Putin has thrived on being unpredictable, but that might not be a viable strategy with Trump. The greatest danger is that Trump remains committed to NATO but gives the impression that he is not, leaving room for a miscalculation that could pitch Russia into conflict with the West.

The damage Trump could do does not stop here. His defining feature is a lack of respect for the rule-based international order from which Britain derives so much benefit. For a man who has endorsed torture and promised to tear up global agreements like the nuclear deal with Iran, it not far-fetched to imagine the next US president attempting to use the apparatus of the state against his political opponents.

A world with Donald Trump as president is likely to turn protectionist when we want to sign new trade deals. It will be unstable when we need stability. It may see the global rules disintegrate when we need to rely on them. And it will be a world where Britain, having cut its ties with the EU, finds itself relatively isolated on the world stage. Under these circumstances, the only prudent course of action is to delay triggering article 50 until we know more fully where we stand.

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Edited by Alan Wheatley and Bill Emmott

Tags: , , Categories: Articles, Post-Brexit