Theresa May must have thought it was a smart move to become the first foreign leader to meet Donald Trump in the White House.
The Mail on Sunday newspaper said the meeting “catapulted her into the front rank of world leaders”. But it doesn’t look like such a smart move now.
The inauguration of a new US president always leads to much agonising this side of the pond about the “special relationship” between Britain and the US.
Before he abandoned the left, Christopher Hitchens wrote a good book on the subject, Blood, Class, and Nostalgia.
He shows how the idea of a deep Anglo-American bond gave the ruling class of the US a sense of historical depth and sophistication. Its British counterpart gets a feeling of sharing in global power with the supposedly culturally inferior Americans despite the loss of empire.
Hitchens quotes Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan. “We are Greeks in this American Empire. You will find the Americans much as the Greeks found the Romans—great big, vulgar, bustling people, more vigorous than we are and also more idle, with more unspoiled virtues, but also more corrupt.”
It’s easy to imagine May thinking of her relationship with the “great big, vulgar, bustling” Trump in these terms—steering him towards “100 percent” support for Nato, for example.
The fact that their meeting turned symbolically around a bust of Winston Churchill is pure Anglo-American kitsch.
Hitchens calls “the Churchill cult” in the US “the residue of a half-forgotten transition whereby the strategic majority of the American establishment crossed over from isolationism to interventionism”.
But here brute political reality intervenes—Trump seems set on taking a step back into isolationism. He is abandoning the commitment to a global liberal capitalist order that US imperialism embraced precisely when allied to Churchill’s Britain during the Second World War.
His inaugural address proclaimed “America First”. This was slogan of Charles Lindbergh, the Nazi sympathiser who tried to keep the US out of the war.
From Trump’s point of view his promise of a rapid trade deal with Britain when it leaves the European Union (EU) showed how he will conduct foreign policy.
He will prioritise bilateral relationships with states over multilateral institutions such as Nato, the World Trade Organisation, and the North America Free Trade Agreement.
For May the meeting offered an opportunity to make concrete her vision of “global Britain” deepening trade links outside the EU.
This is a way of making Brexit more plausible. But it also helps to put pressure on the rest of the EU in the tough negotiations once she triggers the Article 50 process to leave.
Before the meeting the main risk May ran seemed to be that of antagonising the rest of the EU if she aligned herself too closely with Trump.
But this seems like a relatively minor problem in the wake of his executive order barring citizens of seven Muslim countries from entering the US. May’s failure to promptly and forthrightly condemn this despicable racist measure is likely to rebound very badly on her.
The evening before she met Trump she made a speech in Philadelphia in which she denounced Tony Blair’s “liberal interventionism”.
This was Blair’s excuse for the wars the US and Britain waged in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
Blair took the “special relationship” to its lowest point when he glued himself to the presidency of George W Bush.
Bush and Blair drenched the alliance in the blood of the victims of occupation of Iraq. They covered it in the lies about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction that were used to justify the invasion.
But the bombardment of reactionary measures issuing from Trump’s pen look set to make Bush seem comparatively enlightened by comparison.
It remains to be seen how the US and other capitalist classes manage to cope with Trump. But there’s no doubt that May will rue the day she held hands with him.