Inside Britain’s Tortured Embrace of Donald Trump
Unmoored from Europe, Downing Street tries to rekindle a special relationship with a very different kind of Washington.
When British Prime Minister Theresa May finally met U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House last week, she delivered a private message to him with a pointed sense of urgency: Beware of Vladimir Putin.
The Russian president, she confided, can’t be trusted, and efforts to make him a principal partner in the war on terror will only end in despair, officials familiar with the conversation told Foreign Policy.
The exchange reflected growing concerns from a close American ally that Trump is placing his confidence in a man committed to driving a wedge between the West’s great powers and dismantling the most powerful military alliance in history. But it is also part of a concerted effort by Britain’s new leader to carve out a role as the new American president’s transatlantic consigliere, and breathe new life into a special relationship that has become increasingly vital to Britain’s future as it prepares its exit from the European Union.
“With President Putin, my advice is to ‘engage but beware,’” May told a gathering of Republican lawmakers on Jan. 26.
It remains unclear how much influence May has exercised over Trump, but the American leader’s U.N. envoy, Nikki Haley, on Thursday delivered a searing denunciation of Russia’s aggressive “occupation” of eastern Ukraine and Crimea before the U.N. Security Council, and vowed to maintain sanctions on Moscow until it restores sovereignty to Ukraine.
But May’s embrace of Trump is spurring discontent among the British public, which is expressing mounting dismay over the prime minister’s outreach to the brash American president. More than 1.8 million British citizens have signed a petition urging May to retract her invitation to Trump to make a state visit to Britain and meet with Queen Elizabeth II.
In an effort to mollify critics of Trump’s visit in Parliament, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the queen has met with more objectionable foreign leaders, including the late Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and African strongman Robert Mugabe.
And the closer relationship is ringing alarm bells among some of Britain’s European allies, who increasingly question London’s loyalties to the continent and see it as a reprise of old-fashioned British geopolitics.
“I see it as a return to the classical Churchillian vision of the U.K.’s place in the world,” said Krzysztof Szczerski, the chief foreign policy advisor to the president of Poland, an increasingly potent EU member state.
Winston Churchill viewed membership in the European Union with considerable skepticism, and believed the Commonwealth and the United States should take precedence over continental relations. “Never allow yourselves to be separated from the Americans,” the late prime minister declared at his last cabinet meeting in 1955.
On Friday, May defended her embrace of Trump to a skeptical gathering of EU leaders in Malta. It was a tough crowd: Before the summit, European Council President Donald Tusk labeled the Trump administration a threat to the EU on par with a revanchist Russia, a rising China, and radical Islam.
May came to the summit offering to be a “bridge to Donald Trump,” and planned to carry his message that fellow NATO members spend more on defense. But EU leaders appeared to rebuff her offer when it was announced that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande would be the ones to “debrief” other EU leaders about the new American president.
Britain has long tried to straddle both sides of the Atlantic, coordinating much of its foreign policy with its European partners while periodically joining the United States in foreign adventures opposed by its European brethren, like the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
But with the prospect of a genuine departure from Europe on the horizon, Britain is feeling increasing pressure to strengthen its relationship with Washington, particularly on trade and security. That is creating all sorts of tensions, especially with respect to Israel.
In December, Britain joined forces with its European allies to approve a United Nations resolution denouncing Israel over its settlements; Britain was instrumental in drafting the final resolution, alongside the Palestinian’s U.N. delegation. The measure was adopted by a vote of 14 to 0, with President Barack Obama’s U.N. envoy, Samantha Power, casting the lone abstention.
But the vote triggered a fierce reaction from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President-elect Donald Trump, and Republican lawmakers, who threatened to bankrupt the U.N. in retaliation.
Britain moved swiftly to contain any potential diplomatic damage. Days after the vote, May abruptly reversed course and appeared to move closer to the incoming Trump administration. She scolded former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for a speech he made in which he criticized Netanyahu’s government as the “most right wing” in Israeli history, and denounced its settlement policy as a threat to a two-state solution.
Since then, Britain has continued to infuriate its European partners, particularly France, by blocking efforts to pressure Israel to halt settlements and restart peace talks. A big conference in Paris, held Jan. 15, gathered officials from 70 countries, including Kerry, to put diplomatic pressure on Israel. Trump and Israel fiercely opposed the conference. Britain subsequently blocked the European Union from issuing statements endorsing the Paris communiqué, which condemned Israel’s settlements, denounced terrorism and incitement, and proclaimed the two-state solution the only path to a viable peace.
Initially, the EU ambassador to the U.N. was to deliver a speech at the monthly debate on the Middle East on Jan. 17. An early draft of the speech, obtained by Foreign Policy, endorsed the Paris conference, and reaffirmed Europe’s condemnation of Israel’s settlement policy and its call for a negotiated solution with two states as the only way to achieve enduring peace. Britain rejected the statement. And that killed the European consensus the envoy needed to have delivered the speech.
The move marked a sharp break among the Europeans, who have worked closely to align their Middle East policies. Some European powers have expressed concern that Britain is serving as a stalking horse for the new Trump administration.
“For us, it was a clear signal that [the British] are either under pressure from the Trump administration, or they are trying to get as close as they can,” said a European diplomat. The British stance, the diplomat said, was taken “at the expense of standing up for the principles they share with other Europeans.”
Britain maintains that it had no objection to the substance of the text, and that its opposition to Israeli settlements remains as steadfast as ever. They cited procedural reasons — like the fact that Britain was not a party to the Paris agreement — to justify their decision. While Britain sent an official as an observer, it did not sign the final accord.
“We regret that during the last debate on the Middle East that the European Union could not speak,” said one senior European diplomat. But the official added, “I do not see that the British position has substantially shifted from where it was before.”
Indeed, not everyone sees Britain as jumping ship. In her White House meeting with Trump, May did emphasize policies favored by European governments, saying that she secured a commitment from Trump to stand “100 percent behind NATO.” She also pressed Trump to honor the landmark Iran nuclear deal.
On some issues, diplomats say, Britain is growing more pro-European than it was, despite the chumminess with Trump.
If anything, Britain has become “even tougher” in its support of Ukraine since voting to leave the European Union, Ukraine’s U.N. ambassador, Volodymr Yelchenko, told FP. “It’s like their hands have been untied,” he said.
Trump himself has been harder to read. He’s talked up the prospect of closer ties with Putin, but also has been cozy with countries like Britain, which is leery of the Russian leader. And while he’s been loath to criticize Russian actions, his administration at times has excoriated them.
Following his White House meeting with May, Trump mulled an uncertain future with his Russian counterpart — and left unresolved whether he will really listen to May’s urgent warnings.
“I hope we have a fantastic relationship. That’s possible, and it’s also possible we won’t,” Trump said.
He then turned to the prime minister and explained that he had many good relations with people he didn’t think he’d like, and he ended up disliking people he thought he’d like.
“So, Theresa, we never know about those things, do we?”
Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch