- By Will InbodenWill Inboden is Executive Director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as Associate Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Distinguished Scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.
Political shocks walloped both the United States and United Kingdom yesterday. Former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence further undermined the embattled Donald Trump presidency, while British Prime Minister Theresa May’s snap elections gambit backfired and produced a hung Parliament. As different as these events were, their common denominator was a transatlantic crisis of leadership. Amid proliferating global crises, the British-American alliance that in previous times would have helped chart a way forward instead found Washington and London besieged by internal intrigues.
It is a truism of the modern era that political trends in the United States and United Kingdom often mirror each other. The moderate Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath’s defeat in 1974 amid high unemployment and economic malaise foreshadowed moderate Republican Gerald Ford’s defeat in 1976 under similar conditions. Conservative Margaret Thatcher’s win in 1979 anticipated Ronald Reagan’s victory the next year, as both led the 1980s political revolution. Bill Clinton’s third-way centrism found an eager partner in Tony Blair as each reshaped the Democratic and Labour parties in the 1990s. The elections of Gordon Brown and Barack Obama revealed their respective parties’ repudiation of the Third Way and turn leftward. And last June’s Brexit vote foreshadowed the election of Trump in November, as both seismic shocks heralded the return populism to the world stage.
Now Trump and May both find their political standing in peril. It is no small irony that they had previously embraced their roles as lonely leaders, with few other friends among their fellow heads of state. For Trump, May represented the exception that proved the rule of international isolation — the first foreign head of government he hosted as president and the sole European leader eager to partner with him, even as America’s other European allies distanced themselves from the renegade president. For May, Trump represented a lifeline across the Atlantic, offering America as a willing economic partner as she took up her “hard Brexit” stance in preparing to negotiate the British departure from the European Union.
In many ways, Trump and May themselves are polar opposites, and yesterday displayed their very different liabilities. Trump, the masterful political campaigner who understood and capitalized on the public mood better than a slew of more experienced politicians, has proven incompetent at governing. May, the capable technocrat and policymaker, is utterly inept at campaigning, as her first national election revealed. Now, in the wake of the Comey testimony, Trump is presiding over a hamstrung administration, facing very real questions about whether he can achieve any significant policy goals while besieged by escalating investigations and diminishing public trust and political support. Meanwhile, May’s very standing as the Conservative leader is being called into question, as she will apparently try to form a minority government with the support of the Democratic Union Party of Northern Ireland. It hardly needs be said that this is not what she planned for when she called for the snap election.
The political theater all of these recent developments is fascinating, but for those of us who still believe in the transatlantic alliance, it is deeply troubling. Trump’s political and legal woes may dominate the American headlines, but the more serious issues of Russia’s ongoing efforts to delegitimize Western democracy and its growing threat to international order have not received enough attention. May’s desperate political maneuvering may have captured British public attention, but the more serious issues of the EU’s own democracy deficit and internal dysfunction, let alone the very future of the European project, are being neglected. The political crises in Washington and London should not distract us from the deeper issue afflicting our nations: crises of leadership.
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