Wednesday, 6 December 2017

The U.S.-U.K. special relationship? It’s complicated

By Michael Glackin
The Daily Star
Wednesday, December 6 2017

It’s hard to ignore Donald Trump on Twitter. But I find it well worth the effort. Why? Because, the U.S. president uses Twitter as a highly effective way of diverting scrutiny away from what his administration is actually doing.
In case you missed it, earlier this month Trump pulled the U.S. out of the United Nations’ ambitious plan to establish a global approach to migration, on the basis that the process – which involves a very loose agreement to resettle migrants and provide access to education and jobs – interferes with “American sovereignty.”
Displaced people fleeing armed conflict and economic distress is arguably the biggest issue facing Western governments.
The failure of the West to offer a coordinated response to migration pressures has destabilized the political order across Europe, fueling support for far-right undemocratic parties.
Yet, politicians and media instead focused their attention on the erstwhile leader of the free world’s decision to retweet three inflammatory videos from a woman called Jayda Fransen, the deputy leader of a small fringe U.K. racist group called Britain First.
The unverified videos purported to depict Islamic violence. Trump’s apparent endorsement gave the group more publicity than it could ever have dreamed.
U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s deliberately timid response to Trump’s late night Twitter action – that he was “wrong” to retweet the videos – was purposely designed not to offend the thinskinned president as she came under intense political pressure to vigorously condemn his actions.
Of course, British prime ministers are obsequiously paranoid about maintaining the so-called “special relationship” with America’s presidents. But on top of the traditional paranoia, May is still desperately seeking to clinch a trade deal with the Trump administration to cushion the economic impact of the U.K.’s decision to leave the European Union – Brexit, the issue that is dominating U.K. politics.
Unfortunately May’s mild rebuke drew a blistering retort from the Hair Furer, who tweeted: “Don’t focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom. We are doing just fine!”
Well, as everyone now knows, Trump couldn’t even manage to sin effectively, and instead of venting his anger at the prime minister, sent his response to a house wife with the same name in the sleepy seaside town of Bognor Regis, in Sussex, and her six Twitter followers.
And this is the man with his finger on the nuclear button. Makes you think doesn’t it? The Britain First retweets mark a new low in Trump’s odious behavior. Yet is anyone really surprised? Trump’s crude pandering to his political base at home is far more important to him than any ally abroad. But is there also some other method in his madness?
It’s worth remembering Trump is unhappy with the U.K.’s opposition to his desire to scrap the Iran nuclear deal.
Speaking in Jordan at the end of her whistle-stop tour of the Middle East last week, May again, albeit gently, challenged Trump’s desire to wreck the agreement.
During a speech in Amman, she described the deal – brokered by the U.S., U.K., Russia, France, China and Germany – as “a major step toward ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program is not diverted for military purposes” and added that it was “vitally important for our shared security.”
The president’s principal allies in dismantling the deal, indeed the two countries that appear to be informing what passes for the president’s Middle East policy, are Saudi Arabia and Israel. I can’t recall any Trump tweets that have criticized Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu, or Saudi Arabia’s King Salman or his son and de facto ruler of the kingdom, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
In a nod to Tehran’s regional expansion in Yemen, May also warned that more needed to be done to “strengthen our response to Iran’s ballistic missile program,” something she was no doubt made painfully aware of when she held talks with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad a few days earlier and discussed the war in Yemen. May, whose government no longer commands its own majority in Parliament, is under increasing pressure from opposition parties to stop U.K. arms sales to Saudi Arabia as the humanitarian disaster the war in Yemen has caused worsens.
The U.K. has licensed over $6 billion worth of arms sales to the kingdom since the war in Yemen began.
As trading partners are at a premium for the U.K. right now, the arms deals are safe, so long as May’s government remains in power. These days the U.K. isn’t in a position to dictate its views to anyone. However, May’s officials insisted she told King Salman and his son that the Arab-led coalition fighting Shiite Houthi rebels must fully lift its sea and air blockade on the port of Hudaida, which has intensified the suffering of Yemen’s civilian population.
Domestically, the twitter spat has increased pressure on May to cancel Trump’s planned state visit to the U.K. next year. The invitation, made almost immediately after Trump was sworn in as president, includes dinner with the queen, and a parade in gilded horse-drawn carriages for Trump and his wife. It was supposed to be a tool to lever favor with Trump and boost the prospect of a postBrexit free trade agreement with the U.S.
Unfortunately it now appears to have broken in May’s hand, or more accurately in Trump’s thumbs.
Yet despite May’s attempts to cozy up to him in the last year, before the Twitter row blew up, she has absolutely nothing to show for it.
For all Trump’s promises of a “very big and exciting” trade deal, and pledges from pro-Brexit U.K. politicians that a “generous” U.S. agreement would be agreed quickly, nothing has happened.
The harsh reality is the prospects of a quick and generous trade deal with the United States are zero. Firstly, there is no such thing as a fast trade deal – the average U.S. deal takes four years. Secondly, the U.S., and this president in particular, does not make generous commercial deals. Trump has pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and has threatened to abandon the 23-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement unless Mexico and Canada, the other countries in the deal, agree to strict limits on the number of government contracts that Mexican and Canadian companies can win in the United States.
Oddly enough, if the U.K. got a trade deal with the U.S., London would have to give in to Washington’s demands to allow American health giants access to contracts in the U.K.’s state-funded National Health Service, as well as accept lower regulatory standards for U.S. imports. That’s generous for the U.S., but a very hard sell in the U.K.
May will, of course, make up with Trump. As Brexit looms, her political future is now almost entirely dependent on the “special relationship.”
But she would do well to remember that politics for Trump is a zero-sum negotiation. He has a pathological need to win in everything. And while he needs sycophants to constantly reassure him, he despises their weakness.
Hence, I suspect our best hope for the special relationship may well lie in the impending nuptials of Prince Harry and U.S. actress Meghan Markle. Wonder if Trump will get an invitation to that?
Trump’s crude pandering to his political base at home is far more important to him The prospects of a quick and generous trade deal
Michael Glackin is a former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article appeared on page 7 of THE DAILY STAR on November 6, 2017.

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