President Trump’s much delayed state visit to Britain came at an extraordinary moment in British politics. Far from cementing a close relationship with a British prime minister analogous to that between Reagan and Thatcher, Blair and Clinton or Bush, Trump visited a prime minister who had announced that she would be stepping down after his trip. Instead, the stability and continuity provided by Queen Elizabeth was more important than ever.
Trump flew out of a United States that is deeply divided. His approval ratings are poor for a first term President over all; among registered voters, 54% disapprove of his performance as President, and 41% approve. This is a poor performance compared with other recent Presidents at similar points in their first term. However, Trump’s approval ratings are extremely strong amongst Republicans, 91% of whom believe that he is doing a good job as President.
The President is correct in saying that many of his critics do not merely disagree with his policies (though they do), but loathe him because of style, political strategy of playing off social and racial divisions, and his personal conduct.
He visited a country that is equally divided: Britons are passionately divided over Brexit. The result of the 2016 referendum was memorably close – 48% to 52% – and opinion polls since suggest that a majority of Britons may now favour remaining in the European Union.
However, the dominant trend has been for opinion to harden. The overwhelming majority of people who voted to leave are strongly convinced that they voted wisely; those who voted to remain a member of the EU are equally convinced of the rectitude of their vote. John Curtice has suggested that people’s attitudes on Brexit have become stronger and deeper than their attachment to a political party.
Many have drawn attention to the similarities of the causes of Brexit and the rise of Trump. Although there is debate about their relative importance, there is widespread agreement on the importance of both economic and cultural feelings of being ‘left behind.’
Both Brexit and Trump received much support from traditional upper income conservatives, but critical margins of support came from working class voters in regions and occupations that have not shared in economic prosperity and that feel that their beliefs and values are ridiculed by dominant metropolitan elites.
It might seem that there would therefore be a natural alliance between Trump supporters and Brexiteers. To some degree, this relationship does exist: a Pew survey found that supporters of UKIP are much more likely to view Trump positively than the population in general. Trump has made clear his support for Brexit, and Nigel Farage campaigned for Trump back in 2016 and was the first British politician to meet the newly elected President.
Trump expressed his admiration of Farage and Johnson on the eve of his visit, and notably squeezed a meeting with Farage in between appointments with cabinet ministers. Equally, prominent Remain politicians have been vocal in their dislike of Trump and opposition to extending to him an invitation to a state visit.
The opposition of John Bercow – who, by convention, is not meant to express his personal views – to the suggestion that Trump might address Parliament indicates, however, that the dislike of Trump extends beyond active Remainers. YouGov reports that 67% of Britons have a negative view of Trump, while in contrast, 72% have a positive view of former President Barack Obama.
Most Britons (63%) think that Trump makes the world a more dangerous place and a similar percentage disagree with the statement that “I would like to see a politician like him as British prime minister.” (Twenty percent agreed.)
The relationship between Britain and the United States rests on more enduring factors than individual politicians, however. The proportion of Britons who like the USA is higher than in almost all European countries. Britain is the second most popular country among Americans (with Canada in first place.)
None the less, long term factors are weakening the relationship between the two countries. British military power has shrunk under recent Conservative governments, with the army reduced to its smallest size since after the Napoleonic Wars.
Although Britain possesses a nuclear deterrent and two aircraft carriers, its military planners assume that it can go to war only in partnership with the USA. American planners worry about the capacity of a British contingent to add value to a campaign. The end of the Cold War has reduced the value of the UK as an ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’ providing a base for US aircraft and submarines aimed at the (former) Soviet Union.
While much may reflect his personal peculiarities, Trump’s indifference or even hostility to the NATO alliance and fondness for Russia’s President Putin may reflect a deeper turning in the United States towards a more nationalist, self-interested foreign policy.
Support for the multilateral, institutional structure built primarily by American statesmen after the Second World War (the IMF, World Bank, the WTO etc.) is low (notwithstanding, perhaps, Trump’s appearance at the D-Day commemorations yesterday); the critical question is whether this shift is enduring, or merely the result of Trump’s whims – who will be out of office no later than 2025.
Brexit will increase the likelihood of a decline in the close relationship between the UK and USA. Although the President and supporters such as Steven Bannon praise Brexit, most Americans who follow world affairs see it as an extraordinary act of national self-harm. It evokes images of Britain as exclusionary, nationalistic and lost in nostalgia for an imperial past.
Brexit makes the UK a much less desirable for American direct investment as the UK loses secure access to the European single market, the world’s largest integrated market of affluent consumers. Brexit also necessarily ends a role for the UK that the US had prized, namely being an interlocutor with Europe – a country that has played a major role in the EU that understood and was responsive to American concerns in policymaking.
The outgoing French ambassador to the United States, Gerard Araud, has exulted that whereas the US had typically turned to the British for advice and support, it is now more likely to turn to France: “The UK has vanished.” Whilst this might reflect a considerable degree of wishful thinking, Brexit certainly makes it more likely.
By Graham Wilson, Professor and Director, Initiative on Cities, Boston University.