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Expert View

No cake – and not much to eat

by David Hannay | 30.05.2017

David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN.

As the dust begins to settle following President Trump’s first overseas odyssey one can already clearly see just how difficult and frustrating post-Brexit foreign policy making is going to be for whoever wins on 8 June. Neither the present government’s holy grail of the special relationship with the US nor its aspiration of a new partnership with the rest of Europe look in particularly good shape; and the tensions between these two objectives are already on full display.

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Take the Middle East leg first. It can hardly have been encouraging to watch the US scooping the pool in one of Britain’s main overseas markets for arms sales. And the president’s intemperate speech on an Iran which had only two days before re-elected – in what seems to have been a reasonably free and fair election in a region where such things are not everyday occurrences – a president who had campaigned on the need to engage more constructively with the outside world, can hardly have raised anyone’s spirits in Westminster or Whitehall. Do we really want our principal ally to recruit us onto one side of a Sunni/Shia divide where no one has clean hands? Are we not trying to sustain the nuclear accord with Iran so long as they stick to their side of it – as the International Atomic Energy Agency certifies they are doing? And do we not want to do business with one of the potentially largest markets in the Middle East?

And then the Brussels and Taormina legs must have been exquisitely uncomfortable for the prime minister. We may share the US view that the other European members of Nato need to put more into our collective defence. But it is hard to believe that we delude ourselves into thinking that Trump’s bluster and bullying are the best way to achieve that objective. Hard too to believe that we were any less appalled than others were by the US failure to commit explicitly to the Article 5 guarantee in the Nato treaty. If you are going to be transactional about Article 5 what is left of its deterrent effect? Not much, alas. As to the discussions on climate change and trade policy, these served to show that we stand firmly with the other five members of the G7, even if the prime minister was pretty sparing in her advocacy.

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No wonder therefore at the dismay caused when Angela Merkel summed up her experience of those meetings by saying: “The times we (the UK explicitly excluded) could completely depend on others (amongst whom the UK) are, to some extent, over.”

It is not going to be easy to straddle that divide. And it certainly cannot be done by the rather needy response of the home secretary. It will require actions as well as words if we are to overcome our absence from Europe’s top table and to make a shared reality of that new partnership.

All this only four months into the Trump presidency and before the inevitably divisive Brexit negotiations have even begun.

So far Britain’s foreign policy for the way ahead seems, in the words of The Mikado: “A pale and unconvincing story.”

Edited by Geert Linnebank