It is true that many EU countries harbour misgivings about Donald Trump, especially on the matter of trade tariffs and the extent of his commitment (or not) to NATO. And they, too – especially the eastern-most members – have qualms about what Trump might concede when he meets Putin in Helsinki. But their future options are a lot less stark than those facing the UK.
One of the – many – criticisms of Donald Trump’s election campaign was that it was short on specifics. But he did have one policy that remained clear and consistent and which he took with him, undiluted, to the White House. This was his pledge to try to improve relations with Russia.
The summit which is scheduled to take place on 16 July in Helsinki marks the belated honouring of that pledge, and something of a triumph for Donald Trump in the face of bitter opposition from much of the US political establishment. Even as Washington’s dread of a US-Russia summit seems to be fading, however, hostility – or at very least apprehension – is being heard from another quarter.
As possible dates for Donald Trump’s first full-dress summit with Vladimir Putin were being mooted, officials in London were reported to have responded to news of the pending meeting with “alarm”. One concern was apparently that the Trump-Putin meeting could precede this month’s long-planned NATO summit, giving Putin a chance to influence the supposedly malleable Trump before he met his country’s European allies.
That particular fear has now been allayed – perhaps the US National Security adviser, John Bolton, heeded the UK’s misgivings when he made a flying visit to London on his way to Moscow to finalise details of the US-Russia summit. The NATO gathering will come before the US-Russia summit, with Donald Trump’s long-promised trip to the UK being sandwiched in between.
Even though the UK will now have two opportunities to bend Donald Trump’s ear before he meets President Putin, however – at the NATO summit and then during his “working visit” to the UK – this does not mean that London’s worries are at an end. Quite simply, the apprehension in London about the Helsinki summit runs much deeper.
Two years ago, when the UK voted by a narrow majority to leave the European Union, the then Government was confident that post-Brexit, the UK could still count on the Atlantic alliance and its “special relationship” with the United States.
Of course, that “special relationship” might be a great deal more special on one side than on the other, and it might not always have worked in the UK’s best interests – Tony Blair’s early support for the Iraq war comes to mind. But the combination of the defence and intelligence alliance and the longstanding inclination of US administrations to regard the UK as their natural intermediary with the rest of Europe allowed the UK to feel that it would not be completely adrift if it left the European Union. It could simply tilt its foreign policy in a more westward direction – which is the direction many Leave-supporters felt it should have faced all along.
The election of Donald Trump threatened to change all that. Hence Theresa May’s urgent quest to be the first foreign leader to visit the Trump White House, and the inducement of an early State Visit to the UK that was offered (quite contrary to protocol) in return. It is hard to see, however, that this had the desired effect.
Trump might have restored the Churchill bust to the Oval Office (after its banishment by Barack Obama), and he might have reversed track, at least in words, on his campaign-era view that NATO was “obsolete”. But, once in office, he appeared even less predictable than as a candidate. What is more, the UK soon found itself taking a poor second place to France’s Emmanuel Macron as Trump’s new best European friend.
Still, there was one aspect of Trump’s first year that continued to work to the UK’s advantage. Even if the “special relationship” was in trouble, there was a UK-US bilateral alliance to be cultivated on Russia. With Washington in uproar over allegations of Russian interference in the US election and Trump’s ambitions for a rapprochement with Russia effectively blocked by Congress, the UK could be sure of support for its consistently hard line towards Moscow. Most recently, London regarded it as a big success to have had the US join its diplomatic expulsions after the Salisbury poisonings.
Now, though, the balance in Washington may have changed. The US President seems to have capitalised on his historic summit with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, to pursue his long hoped-for meeting with the President of Russia. This led to quips, after the G7 meeting in Canada, that Trump was courting US enemies and alienating its friends. But the fixing of a date and place for the US-Russia summit leaves one of those friends – the self-styled “special” friend – with a particular dilemma.
A hard line against Russia has been a feature of UK foreign policy almost since the day Vladimir Putin came to office as Russian President, and many would say before that. Nor, in official UK circles, does this seem to be any source of regret. On the contrary, the UK Government has prided itself on leading the EU to impose sanctions for Crimea and was an early supporter of boosting the NATO presence on its eastern front. After UK ministers rushed to blame Russia for the Skripals’ poisoning – and now for an apparently new Novichok incident – relations at official level are as bad as they have ever been (even as England football fans enthuse about their welcome in Russia).
If – and it is probably advisable at this stage to say if – the Trump-Putin summit starts a thaw in US-Russia relations, the UK could find itself with a post-Brexit choice of mid-Atlantic isolation, or having to consider a precipitate turn in its Russia policy. And neither is a good look for a country that thinks of itself as a global diplomatic player.
It is true that many EU countries also harbour misgivings about Donald Trump, especially on the matter of trade tariffs and the extent of his commitment (or not) to NATO. And they, too – especially the eastern-most members – have qualms about what Trump might concede when he meets Putin in Helsinki. But their future options are a lot less stark than those facing the UK.
First of all, they are part of an economic bloc which has clout to rival that of the United States. Second, the big EU countries have taken generally a more differentiated view of Russia than has the UK. And third, almost immediately after the UK’s Brexit vote, the EU started to accelerate plans for a military and defence union – plans the UK had consistently blocked. What is more, Trump’s ambivalence towards NATO means that, unlike recent US administrations, his will probably not discourage Europe from building its own autonomous defence bloc if that is what they choose. In short, the EU has alternatives, which Brexit Britain does not.
The French president has held out the possibility of a role for the UK in a European defence structure, which might offer a partial solution. But that would mean reorienting the UK back towards Europe from the “global Britain” it has envisaged. Or it can wait – perhaps in vain – for a new US President of a more conventionally Atlanticist stamp. In the meantime, though, it could do worse than take a fresh look at talking to Russia – though it is hard to expect such a policy change very soon.