The run-up to Brexit is no time for political pettiness.
As the U.K. moves toward breaking from the EU, the special relationship becomes increasingly critical. But Trumpian diplomacy, especially in the age of Twitter, is unlike anything that’s come before.
During his state visit to the United Kingdom this week, the president of the United States was met with angry protesters (some peaceful, some thuggish), insults from the (ineffective) mayor of London, boycotts from Labour-party MPs, and scathing criticism from the mainstream British press.
If the president were anyone other than Donald J. Trump, such hostile behavior from Britain’s political establishment toward our most important ally would be a source of national shame. But the president is Donald J. Trump. And, as some activists thought it powerful to remind us by projecting onto the Tower of London, Trump’s approval rating in the U.K. is at 21 percent where Obama’s was at 72 percent.
Hi @realDonaldTrump. Just so you know, you’re wildly unpopular here in Britain. SAD! People REALLY don’t like you (though they love @BarackObama). Hope you like seeing your FAILING approval numbers projected onto the Tower of London. #TrumpUKvisit pic.twitter.com/oT332Fd6fE
— Led By Donkeys (@ByDonkeys) June 3, 2019
These are not, of course, the approval ratings of the American people, a country nearly 40 times the geographical size of the U.K., but never mind that. . . .
Trump, as we know, gives as good as he gets. Before his plane had touched down on British soil, he tweeted that the mayor of London is a “stone-cold loser.” Later, he refused the invitation to meet Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour party, explaining that he is a “negative force” (which is true, if inappropriate). After this rejection, Corbyn then volunteered himself as the key speaker at an anti-Trump rally.
The outgoing British prime minister, Theresa May — a woman of little political talent — appeared dignified, though severely uncomfortable, in Tuesday’s press conference with the president. Which is understandable given what happened last year. In July 2018, Trump told the Sun, Britain’s best-selling newspaper, that May had mishandled Brexit and that her proposed deal with the EU would “probably kill” any deal with the United States. Then, in a press conference, he denied saying this, calling it “fake news.” Trump further embarrassed May when he weighed in on domestic affairs and suggested that foreign secretary Boris Johnson would make “a great prime minister.”
Much has happened since then, and Trump seems to have softened in response. The withdrawal deal with the EU was rejected thrice by Parliament, and the prime minister herself was rejected by her own party. As Theresa May prepares to step down, 13 candidates (including Boris Johnson) are now positioning themselves to take her place as Tory leader.
In a business roundtable, the president told May, “I don’t know exactly what your timing is [Friday is her last day] . . . but stick around, let’s do this deal.” Later, in a news conference, he said, “[You’re] probably a better negotiator than I am” and “I think you deserve a lot of credit.” (Quite the U-turn on a largely unchanged deal.)
When asked about Boris Johnson, Trump reiterated his earlier support and also spoke highly of Nigel Farage, whom, at this writing, he is scheduled to meet. It is not merely undiplomatic for foreign leaders to weigh in on national politics in this way. It can also have an adverse effect. For instance, when Obama said that Britain would be back of the queue if we left the EU, some leading Brexiteers claimed this helped further their cause.
Whoever succeeds May will have to respond to new challenges in the relationship with the U.S. in the aftermath of Brexit. This was made clear when the American ambassador, Woody Johnson, suggested that in a trade deal with the U.S., “everything” would be on the table, including Britain’s National Health Service. This is a very touchy point, as the overwhelming majority of Britons oppose the privatization of medicine. But Trump tactlessly exacerbated this controversy during the press conference, saying, “When you’re dealing in trade, everything’s on the table, so NHS or anything else, a lot more than that, but everything will be on the table, absolutely.”
“To say nothing, especially when speaking, is half the art of diplomacy,” writes Will Durant in The Story of Civilization. With that in mind, it’s hard to decide which is more embarrassing: the self-satisfied posturing of Britain’s political elites, or the blundering egotism of the president of the United States. At any rate, at such a critical juncture in the special relationship, this is no time for pettiness.