President Trump’s visit to the UK, Ireland and France on 3–6 June provides another opportunity to reflect on the health of the transatlantic relationship.
The situation is considerably different to July last year, when his UK trip was lampooned by commentators and hounded by protesters. Trump has now moulded a presidential administration that is far closer to his own worldview. The gloves are off when it comes to his two foreign policy priorities – Iran and China. He may have a less pliant US Congress, following the Democratic takeover of the House last November, but the failure of the Mueller report to land the killer blow that many of his opponents hoped, combined with a strong domestic economy, mean that he is now a favourite to win the 2020 election.
For its part, Europe has grown weaker rather than stronger over the same period. The elections to the European Parliament have revealed that Trumpian populism is on the rise on this side of the Atlantic also. President Emmanuel Macron, the anti-Trump standard bearer, has lost his lustre; Angela Merkel has formally moved into the twilight of her chancellorship; and Theresa May is stepping down as prime minister after failing to deliver Brexit on schedule.
On the international stage, France, Germany and the UK have been unable to make any headway in resisting the growing stranglehold that renewed US sanctions are imposing on European companies that might have wanted to follow their governments’ urging and sustain trade relations with Iran under the terms of the 2015 nuclear agreement.
Similarly, Europeans have watched powerlessly from the side-lines as the US has ratcheted up its tariffs on Chinese exports to the US. The spectacle of ARM and other European companies cutting business ties with Chinese telecoms company Huawei following its naming on the US Entity List, has amplified the extraterritorial reach of America’s geoeconomic strategy.
Today, Europeans hold no sway and have no say over US foreign policy decisions that many believe run counter to their interests. Yet they and their companies are being forced to serve as agents of these policies. They are being bullied, and it is working.
President Trump has exposed pitilessly the fact that, while might may not be right, might generally wins. Europeans cannot play hardball in return unless they have the resources and credibility to follow through.
On security, they currently lack both the resources and the combined political willpower to demonstrate strategic autonomy. On the economic front, however, the situation is more nuanced.
Europeans are more exposed than the US to a slowdown in the Chinese and global economies, as exports constitute a much larger share of their combined GDP. But they do have power in two areas. The first is on setting rules that most multinational companies, including those from the US, follow across a number of key policy areas, from data protection to anti-corruption to protection of human rights. The second is in international trade negotiations, where the EU has sustained a programme of trade opening negotiations in parallel to Trump’s aggressive efforts to gain unilateral advantage over its most important trade partners. US companies and farmers have discovered that the recent EU trade agreement with Japan has decreased the price competitiveness of their exports in both markets.
While this will give European leaders meeting President Trump in Normandy some sense of consolation, the same cannot be said of Prime Minister May. Not only is Britain distracted by the endless process of negotiating its departure from the EU. If or when it succeeds in leaving, it will lose its voice in those policy areas where Europeans collectively carry most clout – designing international regulations and concluding large-scale trade deals.
Instead, British policy-makers will have to manage an increasingly assertive and self-interested US administration which expects the UK to help it redress the transatlantic balance further in Washington’s favour.
The next prime minister will be caught between the reality of the UK’s low credibility as an independent actor during its endless exit from the EU and the desire of a large part of its public and body politic to see the country demonstrate some of its past plucky self-assurance. Caught between these crosscurrents, President Trump’s visit is the moment for British policy-makers to follow David Cameron’s rhetorical advice from 11 September 2006 and show that Britain will be a ‘solid but not slavish ally’ to the US.
Dr Robin Niblett CMG, Director, Chatham House.