So, what did we learn from President Donald Trump’s three-day visit to the UK?
Nothing much, except that American-British relations are the same as they have been for a while. The US just wants to tell the UK what to do.
In this respect Trump’s following in his predecessor’s footsteps. Barack Obama, after all, also tried to influence UK public mood ahead of Brexit.
The Obama administration publicly declared not to be interested in a trade deal with individual countries, which was a clear reference to a UK on the verge of leaving the EU.
Now Trump’s just continuing this “special relationship” with the UK. Only the current president does it in a more obvious, less diplomatically sugar-coated way.
Trump says a UK-US trade deal is off, apparently because of the path that Prime Minister Theresa May is taking with Brexit. He’s urging her to reverse course again.
I really don’t see why May would heed Trump’s unsolicited “advice”. The fact that he told her to sue the EU rather than negotiate shows his limited grasp of the whole situation.
But Britain would do well to understand the underlying message of Trump’s comments: there is no special relationship.
“Eat our chlorinated chicken”
Not long after Donald Trump had set foot on British soil, Theresa May must have already regretted inviting him over.
After a less than amicable NATO summit, Trump continued his first presidential visit to the UK in the same fashion.
He openly criticised May and said her Brexit plan would “probably kill” a potential trade deal with the US.
Though he pretends to stick up for the British people when he blasts the UK government, there’s nothing but American self-interest in his words.
A rift in UK-EU relations would play into Trump’s hands.
Without a post-Brexit deal with the EU, the UK would really need a deal with the US. The UK would come from a position of weakness and therefore more likely to accept US standards.
Right now there’s a big gap between UK and US standards in farming and agricultural goods (remember the whole chlorinated chicken discussion?). The US has also long wanted the UK to open its healthcare market to foreign competition.
Trump wants us to believe a trade deal with the US won’t happen because of May’s new Brexit White Paper. That seems disingenuous.
With Trump’s America First agenda – over which he seems willing to start trade wars with the EU and China – he was never likely to offer Britain a quick, good trade deal.
Trump’s impulse has been to pull out of free trade agreements. That makes it unlikely he’d agree to a deal with the UK unless it’s almost completely on US terms.
US Trade Secretary Wilbur Ross said as much when he urged the UK to scrap “unnecessary” divergences in regulation with the US.
That’s a fancy way of saying: “Eat our chlorinated chicken”.
The president’s comments bolstered hardline Brexiters in May’s party, who believe May is moving in the wrong direction.
However, even if the UK didn’t seek to keep a close relationship with the EU, there’s no reason to believe the US would be more accommodating towards UK interests.
An asymmetrical relationship
There are no special relationships when it comes to negotiating comprehensive international trade deals.
And there may be more reasons why Britain shouldn’t hope too much on the US playing favourites.
“The US has a few relationships around the world which in some capacity resemble the relationship it has with the UK,” Chatham House’s Jacob Parakilas told CNBC.
“Britain doesn’t really have another ally like the US.”
In other words, for the US the relationship with the UK is decidedly less special. That’s also the case when you look at the countries’ respective economies.
The US economy is almost 10 times the size of the UK’s. The UK exports more than twice as much to the US than to any other country (though the EU remains by far its biggest export market). In turn the UK only accounts for 3% of total US trade.
In this sense the UK-US relationship has become fundamentally asymmetrical. This is evident from the way the two countries deal with each other.
Trump has no problem with meddling in UK domestic politics. He’s blasted the UK’s Brexit strategy, knocked PM May and talked up her rival Boris Johnson, who has been more approving of him.
Can you imagine the UK Prime Minister openly siding with Trump’s opponents in the Russia probe, implying he should be impeached and publicly backing someone to take his place?
The fact that Trump would side with May’s political opponents, and destabilise her further, seems to be a sign that he doesn’t really respect the PM.
Trump’s visit to the UK makes it clear that there is no special relationship as far as the US is concerned.
You could wonder whether the US will still have a good relationship with anyone after the way Trump behaved on recent G7 and NATO summits. He doesn’t seem to be in the business of making friends, or keeping them.
This could well mean that special favours from across the pond are not forthcoming.