A Donald Trump state visit could turn into a disaster for the special relationship
Theresa May's trip to the US was a bold diplomatic stroke. But her offer of a 2017 state visit could backfire spectacularly.
Slowly the consequences of Brexit are becoming clearer. Theresa May has spent the end of January espousing a new “global Britain”, embracing the future by trying to drum up trade with an American demagogue and a Turkish strongman.
As Britain weakens its ties to its neighbours – European countries sworn to a mutual respect for tolerance, the rule of law and a free press – May is compelled to strengthen ties elsewhere.
This is not to say that she should not have visited Washington and Ankara, but she is treading a perilous diplomatic path. Both visits were audacious or smacked of desperation, depending on your point of view.
May was the first western leader to hold talks with Donald Trump in the White House, a reaffirmation of the ‘special relationship’ sealed with that now famous picture of them holding hands as they descended a ramp in the colonnade.
The prime minister initially played it pretty well. Her foreign policy speech to Republican members of Congress was a subtle warning to Trump that if America stepped back from the world, China would fill the void. She pulled Trump back from some of his more controversial positions: he suggested he was not about to start torturing prisoners or lift sanctions on Russia. She said he had told her he was “100%” behind Nato.
It is surely better for a British prime minister to be exerting influence on the US president – whoever he or she is – than throwing rocks from the other side of the Atlantic. But did she go too far?
May’s offer to Mr Trump of a 2017 state visit – a rare event for a president in his first year in office – could backfire spectacularly. Arguably it already has, with hundreds of thousands of people signing a petition and protesting, calling for it to be called off.
Imagine what it will be like when he actually turns up. Will MPs and peers snub him if – and it’s a big if – he gets to address both houses of parliament? The Mall will be a sea of protest.
For a president with a paper thin skin, the visit could turn into a disaster for bilateral relations.
In any event, the offer of a hasty state visit seemed a little over-eager. Partners in any trade negotiation can smell weakness on the other side of the table; the state visit is emblematic of Britain’s eagerness to strike a trade deal with the US to compensate for any lost trade with the EU after Brexit.
While Britain negotiates a new trade deal with the EU – the first in history that will discuss what barriers to erect in a functioning free trade zone – the Americans will be driving a hard bargain: chlorine-soaked chicken, hormone-treated beef and access to NHS contracts for American health care companies, for starters.
As for Turkey, to her credit May did raise concerns about Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s post-coup crackdown on political opponents and a free press, even as she presided over a signing ceremony in which Britain’s BAE systems will help build a new Turkish fighter jet.
Turkey is a Nato ally, it is a generous host of refugees from Syria who would otherwise be heading for the EU and it is a key partner in the fight against terrorism. But May’s decision to become the first western leader to travel to Ankara since the purge was a propaganda victory for the Turkish president.
It was either a bold stroke of diplomacy or another display of post-Brexit neediness. A visit to China will not be far behind: May is learning quickly the political trade-offs that have to be made, as Britain looks to a new trading future beyond Europe.
George Parker is political editor of the Financial Times