Donald Trump has missed no opportunity to underline the parallels between the Brexit outcome of the UK’s June 23 referendum and his own victory in the US presidential election in November. So far Brexiters have been happy to bask in the reflected rays from the new Sun King. Hence Boris Johnson’s castigation of his fellow European foreign ministers’ concerns about the policy implications of Trump’s election; and Nigel Farage and Michael Gove’s pilgrimages to the kitsch splendours of the Trump Tower. That too was the logic of the prime minister’s dash to Washington to be at the head of the queue. Now the risks of too close proximity to an erratic and inexperienced US president are becoming clearer.        

It has been evident for some months now that the policies set out by the new president on the campaign trail were the very antithesis of those of the May government. Protection against free trade; disdain for NATO rather than regarding it as bing the lynchpin of our national security; cosying up to Russia against taking a tough line on sanctions; denouncing the Iran nuclear deal rather than making it work. So the sunny optimism of the Brexiters about the prospects of a Trump administration was based on the assumption that the new president would not do in office what he said he intended to do. With the travel ban on seven Muslim countries and on Syrian refugees that looks like wishful thinking.         

That travel ban is bad enough in itself, being inconsistent with US obligations under the UN’s refugee convention, discriminatory against Muslims, and causing chaos around the world. But it is also hard to believe that it is a good way to combat terrorism. It is certainly not a page out of the British government’s “prevent” strategy playbook. And, if it does feed Islamic radicalisation, it is the Europeans, including the UK, who are likely to bear the brunt of that. 

Should threatening statements about US unilateral trade measures against Mexico and China be turned into actions, the resulting trade wars will far outweigh in their negative consequences any future benefits from the shimmering mirage of tariff free trade between the US and the UK; that is the lesson of the 1930s and there is no reason to suppose that it would not apply again. And NATO’s policy of deterrence which depends so crucially on the perception of the potential adversary will not be easily restored, certainly not by the Europeans acting on their own without wholehearted American backing. 

But the problems go wider than that. We are being told that in future international relations are to be managed bilaterally and transactionally, and not, as they have been for the last 70 years, through multilateral rules and organisations. Really? So 190-plus independent sovereign states are to manage their interactions with each other on a calculation of narrow national interest. No more tiresome constraints by organisations like the UN, the IMF and the WTO. No more need to hammer out difficult compromises which take account of the need for global solutions to deal with global challenges.           

This may all sound a bit alarmist. And it is certainly not yet too late to move back onto firmer ground. To be fair, the prime minister clearly advanced the case for that when she was in Philadelphia and Washington. But it will need persistence; and Britain will need allies if its voice is to be heeded; and among those allies will be the other principal European countries with whom we are about to embark on a tricky and potentially divisive negotiation.

by David Hannay | 30.01.2017

Edited by Hugo Dixon

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