One of the first things Donald Trump did as president was to return a bust of Winston Churchill to the Oval Office. It is merely a symbol but, for British observers at least, a hopeful one. Love him or loathe him, Mr Trump is now the most powerful man in the world — and the UK has to work with him. If he offers the hand of friendship, we would be fools not to accept it.
Barack Obama tried to re-orientate US foreign policy away from Europe and towards Asia and Latin America. He partly blamed his European allies for the chaos in Libya; his secretary of state partly blamed Britain for delaying action in Syria. The UK confounded Mr Obama by voting for Brexit. He ended up regarding himself as far closer to Berlin than London — and that was regrettable.
The Special Relationship is not written in stone, but it is important and can be a force for good. For instance, Britain and America share vital intelligence and are arguably the bedrock of the Nato alliance. We are significant trade partners. And we share a bond in our values, in our historic commitment to democratic capitalism.
Today, there is scepticism about Mr Trump’s commitment to that philosophy. In his inaugural speech he talked about putting “America first” and has threatened other nations with import tariffs. His goal, which is understandable given his working-class constituency of support, is to turn America back into an exporting nation. But hurting the economies of his allies only to trigger price inflation at home would be a terrible mistake, and the UK has to make the case against nationalist rhetoric. Likewise, Mr Trump’s frustration with Nato countries that won’t meet the aspiration of spending 2 per cent of their GDP on defence is understandable. Britain has broken its back to reach that figure; this newspaper has long argued that it is critical that the West puts its money where its mouth is. But threatening that America will not come to the aid of countries that fail to reach a precise spending goal is reckless. It is indeed only a goal, not a condition of Nato membership or of mutual defence.
The fact that Mr Trump says controversial things without apparent consideration of the authority of his office is one reason why his inauguration has spread panic. Yesterday’s demonstrations in Washington and across the world were a testament to those concerns and people have a right to express their opinion. But Theresa May has to act in the best interests of her nation and strike a deal that works for Britain, strengthens the Atlantic alliance and ameliorates some of the new President’s troubling qualities.
Mrs May has found the right tone. Asked about Mr Trump’s comments on women, she has said that she dislikes them and pointed out that he has apologised. She is expected to fly to Washington this week to meet him face-to-face — and has promised to be “very frank” about the importance of Nato and of building unity within Europe over security issues. If the two nations can work together to reform and strengthen the Western alliance, that is all to the good. If in the process Mrs May can help convince Mr Trump that Vladimir Putin is a serious threat to global security then that, too, would be a step in the right direction.
Mrs May can also strengthen the trade links between the two countries. There is the potential for opening up the banking industries, as well as the ongoing dream of an Atlantic free trade deal, which would counter some of the protectionist talk that Mr Trump indulges in. He admires Brexit, seeing it as the British counterpart to his own revolution, and admires Britain in general, being half-Scottish. Ironically, Brexit, which many said separated the UK from Europe, gives Britain a chance to act as a bridge between the US and Europe — for we are now in the best position to make the case for the continued defence of Europe in the court of Washington.
One myth of the Special Relationship is of Britain playing Greece to America’s Rome — playing the role of older, wiser friend who guides the empire towards doing the right thing. Acknowledging that Britain is no longer a superpower, we can nevertheless make the case for its re-emergence as a model nation that is admired and emulated by others. As we restore our democracy and forge new trading relationships with the rest of the world, we can encourage America, in addition, to liberalise rather than retreat.
What would Churchill have made of these remarkable events? He would not have approved of the isolationist flavour of America First but, likewise, he probably would have argued against tearing up the precious, necessary Atlantic alliance on the basis of personal disapproval of the President. Mr Trump is in charge now. The UK has to find some way of making him work to our benefit.
— The Telegraph, United Kingdom,