Rather than seek to inspire or unite a country, Donald Trump’s inaugural address was a long vindictive swipe at his enemies mixed with a whinge about free trade and how America has been the loser from it. Nothing about only fearing fear itself, nothing about asking what you can do for your country rather than vice versa. Instead, a story about “carnage” caused by that big bad world. It has gotten a little too scary for America, so it’s time to retreat. “For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry,” he said. “We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon. One by one, the factories have left our shores. The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and redistributed all across the world. From this day forward its going to be only America first, America first!”
There was plenty more in this vein. Set aside the fact that US job openings in manufacturing more than doubled under Obama: Trump’s election is about the return of protectionism, the US retreat from free trade – and a massive vacancy that has just been created to lead the world in this department. A vacancy that can be filled by Britain.
At the Davos summit yesterday, Theresa May delivered what was perhaps the best speech of her career making clear she wishes to apply for this vacancy. Contrast her words with Donald Trump’s:
I want to explain how, as we do so, the United Kingdom – a country that has so often been at the forefront of economic and social change – will step up to a new leadership role as the strongest and most forceful advocate for business, free markets and free trade anywhere in the world. For that is the unique opportunity that Britain now has…. we are among the most racially diverse countries in Europe, one of the most multicultural members of the European Union, and why – whether we are talking about India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, countries in Africa, Asia or those that are closer to home in Europe – so many of us have close friends and relatives from across the world. And it is why we are by instinct a great, global, trading nation that seeks to trade with countries not just in Europe but beyond Europe too…
We seek the freedom to strike new trade deals with old friends and new allies right around the world as well. I am pleased that we have already started discussions on future trade ties with countries like Australia, New Zealand and India. While countries including China, Brazil, and the Gulf States have already expressed their interest in striking trade deals with us. It is about embracing genuine free trade, because that is the basis of our prosperity but also the best way to cement the multilateral partnerships and cooperation that help to build a better world.
As I say in my Daily Telegraph column today, Theresa May started off sounding a little protectionist. But she is shrewd enough to spot this almighty opportunity: a president who has revived the “America First” slogan and is relinquishing American leadership in this area. With the EU in crisis, the stage is set for Britain to return to its former position as the chief torch-bearer for free trade – a mission all the more important with protectionism on the rise.