So now Theresa May knows what it’s like to be Tangoed. Her visit to Washington, hailed a ‘triumph’ by friendly newspapers, has become a liability. Life comes at you fast, especially when you launch a diplomatic initiative on a wing and a prayer, not in response to a clinical evaluation of its likely outcome.
Because who can really be surprised that hugging Donald Trump close would so swiftly induce a form of diplomatic blowback? Who is surprised that tying yourself to an administration as vicious as it is incompetent might prove a high-risk enterprise?
The Prime Minister played two roles on her trip to the United States. She was both supplicant and counsellor. Supplicant because, especially post-Brexit, her need to curry favour with the new American president was stronger than ever; counsellor because this particular president needs all the help he can get.
There was, I am afraid, more than a whiff of Greeks and Romans about May’s visit. You got a sense of this at their brief press availability during which the prime minister said, in effect, ‘I am committed to NATO and so is the president. I think I’m right to say that, aren’t I Donald? We agreed, in private, that you would say something useful and helpful about this. Yes you did, so, please, come on, just say it in public too. That’s the spirit. Well done Donald! See, nothing to worry about here.’
Everyone understands that you have to deal with reality, not the president you might want to have. But there is a grave risk of exaggerating Britain’s influence over Trump and his willingness to listen. Flattery, unusually necessary for Trump, is also unusually risky for May. If you talk of his presidency as the “dawn of a new era of American renewal” do not be surprised if people remember this and hold it against you. As spoons for supping go, this is an uncommonly short one.
Doubly-so, in fact, when you then talk about shared values and this chatter is then followed by Trump’s decision to introduce, even if only temporarily, immigration restrictions that, inter alia, impact thousands of British citizens. And when that happens you have to have something more to say than, well, you know, this is a matter for the Americans. Because this morning, who looks better, stronger, and more prudent: Theresa May or Angela Merkel?
Of course Britain needs a good relationship with the United States but not at any price, not on any terms. Other presidents have introduced temporary visa and immigration restrictions but none has made doing so a defining feature of their administration. Trump’s actions are different in degree and kind. This is a feature, not a bug, just as the decision to appoint Steve Bannon to the national security council means something.
Alliances require reliability. Is there anything in anything Trump has said or done, both on the campaign and since his inauguration, to indicate he is a partner upon whom this, or any other, country can rely? To put it another way, is Theresa May likely to have more influence upon Trump than Vladimir Putin? This isn’t just about status (though it is partly about status), it’s also a question of politics. Having to eat a sh-t sandwich is one thing; making it yourself is quite another. But that’s what the prime minister has done.
Trump’s immigration order is both serious and not serious. The latter because it is neither a coherent nor a convincing response to any security concern. It will not make America ‘safer’. On the contrary, it helps the very forces of Islamist extremism Trump has pledged to crush. In that respect, it is a typically obtuse proposal made by a President who, it is already clear, is thoroughly out of his depth.
But it is also serious, because it makes good on a campaign promise and by doing so helps define his presidency. It is a means of keeping faith with the people who voted for him and rewarding their convictions. The mooslims and other foreigners are useful pawns in this exercise. Though it will have an effect overseas – and likely a bad one – it is domestic policy, designed to sharpen and deepen the divide between Trump’s people and his opponents. As such it will likely be more popular than you might wish, but such is the power of partisanship.
There was no need for May to rush to Washington. She could have waited until she had a clearer, better, appreciation of how Trump intends to behave. Verify then trust. Instead the prime minister gambled and by doing so chumped herself. She didn’t have to seem quite so needy; she didn’t have to embrace a president as venal as he is absurd, as malignant as he is ignorant.
All of this was predictable and, indeed, predicted. Who could have guessed Trump would behave like this? Only people who spent any time at all paying any attention to what he said. America First? Up to a point. America disgraced? Undoubtedly. And, as Mrs May may now have reason to reflect, the lesson to be drawn from Trump’s business career is a simple one: caveat emptor. That’s doubly true of his political career. He is in the business of shaming America; May risks humiliating Britain.