A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

The Trump Trap

Theresa May has unwisely hitched her wagon to the new US president.

Faced with dwindling Brexit options, the British prime minister has pinned all her hopes on Donald Trump and a revival of the “special relationship.” This is likely to cause a backlash at home.

© REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The United Kingdom’s “special relationship” with the United States, oft cited in British political and media circles, has long been more of a one-way-street than a true exchange. Over the weekend, British Prime Minister Theresa May did more to expose that truth than any prime minister before her.

The term, fist coined after World War II by Winston Churchill, was born out of the Cold War to describe the unparalleled level of cooperation between the world’s two largest English-speaking countries. It was used not only to describe the military and intelligence sharing between the two governments, but also the cultural exchanges. For Brits, it still conjures up an image of two equal powers standing side-by-side leading the world.

But though the term is well-known in the UK, many Americans – even those working in Washington – have never heard of it. For the US, the UK has been a dependable ally, but never an equal partner. How could it be when the dynamics of the relationship are so lop-sided? After all, the US has military bases in the UK, but not vice versa (such an idea would be unthinkable). Even culturally, while the US may import small amounts of music, television, and movies from Britain (it is virtually the only country from which it does so), this is dwarfed by technological, cultural, and media exports going the other way.

Some have argued that, historically speaking, the relationship is closer to that of one of the Roman Empire’s many vassal states – preferably the once-great Greece advising the new, brash superpower­. This may have been hyperbole before, but it is set to become a very accurate description of the relationship in the future under May’s vision.

Hat in Hand

On Friday, following her announcement earlier this month that the UK will make a complete break with the European Union rather than remain in the EU’s single market, May made a visit to Washington hat in hand. In her Brexit speech, May described a vision of a “renewed” Anglosphere of free trade relations between the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to fill the gap of economic fallout from the loss of trade with Europe (which currently makes up 44 percent of UK exports and 53 percent of imports). A trade deal with Washington is essential to this vision, given the relatively small size of the remaining Anglosphere countries.

American pundits knew this, and so did the US president. “May’s speech seems desperate and slavish,” observed John Marshall, editor of Washington’s Talking Points Memo, in relation to her effusive praise of Trump’s victory and the Republican Party. President Trump’s victory was “achieved in defiance of all the pundits and the polls – and rooted not in the corridors of Washington, but in the hopes and aspirations of working men and women across this land,” she told lawmakers, claiming it signaled “national renewal.” “As we rediscover our confidence together – as you renew your nation just as we renew ours – we have the opportunity, indeed the responsibility, to renew the special relationship for this new age. We have the opportunity to lead, together, again.”

With those words, May didn’t only hitch her personal star to Trump’s. In a risky gambit, she pinned the future of the UK on the most controversial US president in history – someone who much of the British public believes is a madman. But faced with few cards to play in the unfolding Brexit chaos, May probably felt she had no other choice than to offer herself and her country at Trump’s feet. Trump obliged, calling Brexit “a blessing for the world” as May looked on appreciatively.

Domestic Backlash

But May is surely aware of the risks of this strategy. After all, a slavish devotion to a previous American president brought down Tony Blair, who went from successful leader to one of the most loathed men in Britain after he took Britain into George W. Bush’s Iraq War. May will be hoping to avoid that fate, but she’s not off to a good start. Her visit was remarkably poorly timed. In her haste to be the first world leader to meet the new US president, she stepped right into the maelstrom of Trump’s first week in office, which has seen a flurry of executive orders topped by his so-called “Muslim ban” that have horrified not only large swathes of the American public, but also much of world.

Discomfort is coming from all sides in the UK. Many people now see her administration as complicit with one that is about to gut the United Nations, start trade wars with China, and allow Russia to destroy the EU and possibly NATO. Even others who might be less concerned about the new US president have been made uncomfortable by headlines like “Love-in at the White House” in the staunchly pro-Brexit tabloid Daily Mail. May “is coming as a supplicant and Trump seems to know this,” Jonathan Freedland, a columnist for The Guardian newspaper, told The New York Times. “She’s eager to do a deal, like a house buyer who has already sold her house and has nowhere to live. And Trump, the real estate man, knows that.”

Becoming Part of Trumpland

Trump needed May as well, although he would likely never admit it – he needed the endorsement of a Western European leader, particularly after the icy reception he received from German Chancellor Angela Merkel. May’s endorsement gives him more legitimacy on the world stage, seeming to say, “this is the way the world is going, not just in America. Resistance is futile.”

Of course, May wants to believe that she is influencing the new president by not freezing him out. At their joint press conference, she assured the room that Trump did not mean what he had said about NATO, and that in fact he does support it. Trump seemed to shrug and nod in response. May smiled. “See, I can change him,” she said with her eyes. But as Republican leaders, and indeed anyone else, should have learned over the last year, the tepid shrug of a serial liar actually means nothing. Whatever assurances he may give cannot be relied upon. Given the power imbalance between the two countries, and the erratic nature of the new president, the future of her country will dependent upon his whims.

May has effectively annexed her country to Trump’s world. Whether they support Brexit or not, this probably isn’t a comforting thought for most people in Britain.