31 January 2017

President Trump’s isolationist rhetoric has rightly caused concern – but isolating an isolationist is not the answer. Theresa May should be commended for her successful visit to the United States and for establishing a personal working relationship with the world’s most powerful politician.

Writing in The Times, Lord Ricketts, a former senior diplomat, criticised the extension of a state visit invitation to President Trump and observed that there is no precedent for such a visit in a president’s first year in office. That may be the case. But the Prime Minister is right to engage early with Donald Trump. No other post-war president has floated such wide-ranging changes to the established architecture of the international order.

Theresa May’s Washington visit was followed closely in Europe. An editorial in Le Monde praised the Prime Minister for facing President Trump as an “incorrigible European” displaying “the virtues of freedom and tolerance”, and for “skilfully forcing” the president to acquiesce when she declared she had secured his full support for NATO. Sensible Europeans are applauding her and seeing Britain as a potential crucial bridge to America. They should continue to do so particularly if she keeps making the case that a strong EU is in Britain and the West’s interest.

The Prime Minister’s address to the Republican congress was in some ways as significant as her dialogue with the President – it will be the House and the Senate which provide checks and balances to the executive, and which will agree a new agreement or treaty with the UK. She outlined to Republicans, in Philadelphia, Britain and America’s shared agenda in reforming rather than rejecting the United Nations and NATO as well as a comprehensive and impressive foreign policy vision.

Lord Ricketts has also raised concerns that the Queen herself was being drawn into a “very difficult position” given the “growing controversy” around the visit. It is of course correct to observe that Trump’s presidency is already proving controversial – not least because of the rushed executive order “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States”. But the Queen has successfully hosted state visits from (some highly) controversial heads of state as well as other divisive politicians. Even limiting ourselves to American examples, President Reagan visited in 1982, during a time of widespread public support for unilateral nuclear disarmament, and President Bush in 2003, after large protests against the Iraq War. Controversy cannot be the primary test of whether it is right for our government to offer foreign heads of state meetings with our head of state.

Over the next few years UK politicians of all parties ought to be working closely with President Trump and other elected representatives in the Houses of Congress, in the way which the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have already begun. We can hope that the US administration will show less haste and more care over its future law making, and we can further hope to influence the direction they take, but we cannot expect to agree with all that they choose to do. We need more engagement and dialogue, not less. And while we may criticise and oppose decisions of democratic leaders in Washington, crass comparisons to fascists and appeasers are unhelpful. Politicians here need to be careful in the language they choose, avoid the rush to hasty and ill-judged rhetoric, and support the government in maximising Britain’s reach in America.