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Expert View

The Trump soap opera and Brexit

by David Hannay | 17.07.2018

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

After 10 days of Donald Trump’s soap opera diplomacy – at Nato, in the UK and in Helsinki with Vladimir Putin – it may be useful for Brexit-obsessed Britain to consider the impact of the US President’s turns and twists on the choices we face in the months ahead.

Nato

It is just about possible to argue that the outcome of the Nato summit in Brussels was less bad than many people feared. After all, the communique said the right things about the commitment of all to collective defence, about the need to strengthen defence spending, and about the need for a robust approach to Russian assertiveness. And Trump signed it.

Unfortunately, the US president said all the wrong things, both in the sessions and in public, and he is the commander-in-chief of our most powerful ally. By continuing to link security issues to his ill-informed concerns about bilateral trade balances, he undermines the deterrent effect of the Article 5 commitment to collective defence. His words imply a transactional approach which could tempt Putin into testing Western cohesion once more.

By hectoring and cajoling individual European countries – and Germany in particular, with erroneous assertions about the level of its energy dependence on Russian gas supplies – he has very possibly made it more difficult for them to raise their defence spending. In a post-Brexit world, where Britain’s security depends as much as it has ever done on solidarity in the Nato alliance, an increase in transatlantic tension will directly affect our own security.

UK/US relations

Trump’s visit to the UK descended into slapstick from the outset. We would do well to recognise that his stay here owed as much to the fact that he owns two golf courses in Scotland as to his wanting our advice before the meeting with Putin. Of this there was no trace in his talks with Theresa May. He was, however, generous in the advice he doled out on the Brexit negotiations – including the bizarre suggestion that the UK should sue its EU partners, rather than negotiate with them, even though there is no legal base for doing so.

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His mixed messages over the negotiation of a US/UK trade agreement – a mirage receding ever further into the future with each meeting between the prime minister and the president – illustrate just how subservient a position we have got ourselves into. Since it is fairly obvious that the Chequers package will indeed inhibit our negotiating hand in any such negotiations, Trump’s initial, brutal warning in his interview with The Sun is a lot more credible than his subsequent semi-retraction of it. And his labelling of the EU as a trade “foe” makes it clear how impossible it’s going to be to please both our main trading partners at the same time. We surely know by now with whom we do more trade.

Russia

Then came Helsinki, and the startling revelation that Trump would rather accept a former KGB colonel’s version of events – swearing blind that Russia had never interfered in US politics – than that of the US’s own law enforcement agencies, based on lengthy research leading to criminal indictments, that the Russians had been doing precisely that. No doubt, if he had raised the cases of the nerve agent poisonings in Salisbury and Amesbury – and there is no evidence that he did – Putin would have sworn blind that Russia had nothing to do with that either.

What conclusions can we draw from all this in the context of our own Brexit predicament? For a start, that Trump is a totally unpredictable operator on the international stage, more likely to react to protect what he sees as his personal position – for example not to admit anything that casts a shadow on his own election – than to uphold the rule of law or the interests of his allies. Second, his advice on Brexit and on subsequent US/UK trade relations is completely unreliable. That is a grim prospect which bears out the view that this is no time for us to be distancing ourselves from our fellow Europeans. We share so many values and interests, and we are going to need to work even more closely with them if we are to protect ourselves from the effects of this soap opera diplomacy.

Edited by Quentin Peel

One Response to “The Trump soap opera and Brexit”

  • David, where is your evidence that the Kremlin was behind the Novochek attack in Salisbury? Is our Government, if you can call it that, so incompetent that it is going for the “Big Bad Bogy that is coming to get you in the night” approach to policy to distract people away from their failings at home.