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Erdogan, Trump and other fragile egos: Theresa May’s unenviable foreign policy dilemmas

29 June 2018

4:39 PM

29 June 2018

4:39 PM

Given the way her Cabinet ministers are behaving at the moment, Theresa May is really rather used to dealing with fragile egos. This will come in handy over the next month when the Prime Minister has to go from what promises to be an extremely tricky Nato summit straight into Donald Trump’s visit to the UK. As James says in his politics column this week, the challenges of these events, along with the ongoing problems both in the Cabinet and Parliament over Brexit, will make July one of the hardest months of May’s premiership to date.

But trying to tell her warring ministers to shut up seems easy compared to the foreign policy challenges that the Prime Minister is facing. They would not be easy for any leader. First, the leader of the free world is normally viewed by other western countries as the one who provides international leadership on matters of democracy and trade. But now, May is constantly under pressure to condemn the domestic policies of Donald Trump as the same time as the US and EU are engaged in a bitter trade war – oh, and Britain is keen for the best post-Brexit trade opportunities that it can muster.

As it happens, there is already anxiety in Number 10 that May tells Trump off too much already in private phone calls, which might sound strange to those outsiders who would rather the Prime Minister only communicated with the US President at a safe distance using a megaphone. Surely she isn’t telling him off enough – and she’s not even telling the rest of the world how wrong Trump is on so many things? It’s a regular riff at Prime Minister’s Questions: why is the Prime Minister letting Trump have his visit in July when he has done yet another unacceptable thing?

The reason May doesn’t endlessly condemn the US President in public is the same reason the Prime Minister was so fast to congratulate President Erdogan on his victory in the Turkish elections this week. It might seem odd to be congratulating someone who, prior to consolidating his control over the state as he did in these elections, had already locked up journalists and sacked thousands of judges for allegedly being part of a mass Gülenist infiltration of every part of society. But as with Trump, there are consequences to public condemnation which go far beyond a bruised presidential ego. I have explained before that if Turkey feels it is not supported by historic European allies such as Britain, then it will be tempted to turn still closer to Russia and Iran, both of whom were quick to congratulate Erdogan, too. Turkey is an important ally in Britain’s fight against terrorism, something May herself referred to in the call with Erdogan. Oh, and there’s that small matter of post-Brexit trade, once again.

And then there’s the matter of how Trump and Erdogan themselves get on, after months of tensions between the two countries on US support for Kurdish fighters in Syria and Turkey’s rather odd decision as a Nato member to buy Russian missiles. The men agreed after the Turkish election results to improve relations, and will meet at July’s Nato summit.

What a lot of unenviable choices for any Prime Minister. Plenty of politicians would say May shouldn’t be so warm to leaders whose values Britain does not share. But the fact is that those leaders will continue to exist whether or not Britain is there to hold their hands. The question is at what point does trying to keep a country onside and away from the tempting embrace of other strong-men leaders such as Putin and Rouhani stop being a good idea?

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