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Theresa May’s Misplaced Bet on Donald Trump

Theresa May’s Misplaced Bet on Donald Trump

Chariman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff/Flickr

As President of France, Emmanuel Macron has revived the “Grande Nation” more quickly than even he could have imagined: France was recently declared the world’s top soft power for 2017, outranking both the US and the UK for the first time.

After Donald Trump’s recent visit to join Macron for the French National Day celebrations in Paris, the ranking is not too surprising. Less than two months after the handshake heard ‘round the world, Macron’s flattering reception of his American counterpart was apparently enough to paper over the rift the French president himself opened in previous meetings. Having asserted his independence for the sake of his domestic audience, Macron treated Trump (who is easily impressed by displays of military power) to the annual parade on the Champs-Élysées and dinner atop the Eiffel Tower.

Macron has a reputation for deft political maneuvering, and inviting Trump to Paris was the latest example. During the visit, Trump not only retracted his earlier Paris-bashing but even suggested that “something could happen” on the Paris climate agreement. What is that something? For now, only Trump knows. More important is the fact Macron has turned Paris into Washington’s primary European point of contact… all while re-elevating the role of France in global affairs.

Macron’s nascent relationship with Trump, however, comes at the expense of other traditional American partners in Europe and most especially the UK. The success of Macron’s overtures has surely come as a slap in the face to Theresa May. After all, the British prime minister has invested considerable time and political capital on forging a relationship since well before Macron even became president.

Those efforts started well before Trump’s inauguration, when May responded to Trump’s victory with unequivocal congratulations to the President-elect. Just days after he took office, May became the first world leader to visit President Trump at the White House in Washington. May has repeatedly hitched her wagon to Trump’s by insisting that the US & UK can “lead, together, again.”

As of now, she has very little to show for it. Because the prospect of his coming to London has been met with hostility from the British public, Trump has written off any state visit to the UK until next year at the earliest. Trump upped the ante after leaving Paris by reportedly refusing to come until Theresa May can assure him a similarly warm welcome in the UK.

That Trump can so easily shift his affinities between Britain and France, at the very moment contentious negotiations over the Brexit he supported get underway, is a jarring reminder to Downing Street that Trump is both fickle and unreliable in his priorities. Trump’s constantly changing views on a UK-US trade deal, a cornerstone of the British government’s post-Brexit planning, should be most worrying.

In April, Trump’s commerce secretary indicated a trade deal with the UK was a low priority for the administration and argued that a deal with the EU was more important. This month, Trump himself reversed course and opined that a trade deal with the UK would be completed “very, very quickly”. On Tuesday, he promised that the US-UK special relationship would be “even better” – in between tweets attacking his own Attorney General and joking that his young son would soon be testifying in the Russia investigations.

And yet, despite her American counterpart’s constant unpredictability, May keeps putting high hopes in Trump and puts her own credibility on the line to defend his erratic behavior. Embroiled in the intricacies of Brexit, there is a real danger of Theresa May getting herself “stuck in the pending tray.” With Trump distracted by his troubles at home, she would be better off not counting on a UK-US FTA any time soon. Her best move (at least as far as life after Brexit is concerned) would be to focus on the UK’s alternative options.

It’s fortunate that she has several to choose from. Following extensive visits by UK government officials to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), GCC states and major British trade partners like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have reacted positively to the idea of forming free trade agreements with the UK. Both countries are looking for investments to realize deep economic restructuring, and annual exports from Britain to the GCC already total about £30 billion.

As the largest member of the bloc, Saudi Arabia is at the forefront of British attention to the region. The Saudis welcomed Theresa May to Riyadh in April to talk trade and the upcoming IPO of Saudi Aramco (in London, if May has her way). London recently published new rules to facilitate the listing of foreign state-owned firms at the London Stock Exchange as part of its bid for Aramco’s public offering. Both May and Cabinet officials like Liam Fox have endorsed Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 economic program, of which the Aramco IPO is a significant component.

Besides the Gulf states, former British colonies like Australia and India have also been much more consistent in quickly reaching agreements once the UK is outside the European Union. Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull used a joint press conference with May two weeks ago to tell reporters he is ready to sign a free trade agreement with London “as quickly as the UK is able to move” after Brexit. India has hinted that an ongoing visa issue for qualified workers needs to be resolved for negotiations to take off in earnest, but Narendra Modi is still a much more straightforward interlocutor than Donald Trump.

As Brexit negotiations get dicey, Theresa May and her government will need to be able to point to tangible steps forward. The current political climate in the US is hardly amenable to “quickly” coming to terms on a US-UK FTA – at least for now. May needs to focus on serious partners from other parts of the globe, at least until the instability in Washington comes to an end.



James Nadeau

Originally from Maryland, James Nadeau is a European affairs advisor and foreign policy analyst currently based in Brussels, Belgium. His writings have been featured in The Kyiv Post, The Hill and RealClearWorld.