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COMMENTARY

Can Trump make the UK 'special relationship' great again?

DONALD Trump makes his first presidential trip to the United Kingdom, from Thursday to Sunday, in the face of significant public protesting. While the tour has been scaled back from the originally planned state visit in these controversial circumstances, it could yet help breathe new life into the longstanding "special relationship".

Mr Trump, whose mother was born in Scotland (where the US president will spend the weekend), appears to value the close historical ties between the two nations, and Theresa May was the first world leader to meet him last year after he was sworn into office. At that time, Mr Trump called Mrs May "his Maggie", drawing comparisons with the political bond forged between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

Despite the many political differences between Mr Trump and Mrs May, on the face of it significantly larger than those between Mr Reagan and Mrs Thatcher, both leaders welcome a constructive partnership building on the traditional ties between the two nations founded on demographics, religion, culture, law, politics and economics.

For Mrs May, the rekindling of this special relationship, in a post-Brexit context, would potentially flesh out her aspirations for a new "global Britain".

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Yet, a key challenge for Mrs May in hosting this week's visit will not just be the Cabinet resignations this week over Brexit, but also the significant UK public opposition to the Trump trip. So much so that the tour will be largely kept away from demonstrations in London and focus instead on Blenheim Palace (Winston Churchill's birthplace); Chequers (the countryside home of the UK prime minister); and Windsor Castle where Mr Trump will see Queen Elizabeth.

A key focus for discussions will be the potential US-UK trade deal in coming years. If Mrs May could showcase strong support for such an agreement - in the face of recent Cabinet resignations - it would represent a win in her battle to show that the nation can, post-Brexit, potentially swiftly secure trade deals with key partners outside of the EU. This could also be a boon for Mr Trump given that he is being criticised, in many quarters, as being an anti-globalisation, protectionist president.

AREAS OF AGREEMENT

There are key areas ripe for agreement here, including lowering or eliminating tariffs on goods. Equally, however, potential icebergs lie on the horizon, not least given the president's "America First" agenda.

Specific areas of potential disagreement on trade include the prospect that harmonising financial regulations between the two countries, with the international dominance of Wall Street and the City of London, will not necessarily be straightforward. Meanwhile, securing agreement in other sectors - including agriculture, where there are divergences of views and strong interest groups - will not be easy.

Another key agenda item will be security and defence which has long been at the core of the special relationship given the very close partnership between the two nations in areas like intelligence. So while this is a terrain in which there will be much agreement - including over the need to continue the counter-terrorism battle against the Islamic State - tensions could surface, including over Russia.

Mr Trump has openly courted Russia's President Vladimir Putin who he is meeting in Helsinki on Monday for a summit. Mrs May will be keen to find out Mr Trump's real bottom lines on Russia and, in the words of Mrs Thatcher, seek to "stiffen his spine" against what she perceives as the real and present Russian security threat.

She will remind him about the recent incident in South-west England which saw the alleged Russian attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter. Mrs May is a strong defender of Nato and confirmed that London would, under its Article 5 responsibilities in that organisation, come to the aid of any Eastern European countries attacked by Moscow, an issue that Mr Trump has so far given less clear-cut answers to.

Part of the reason for Mrs May's enquiry in this area relate to the mixed messages coming from Mr Trump and his senior team since he assumed the presidency. On the one hand, he appears to believe Russia is not a serious threat to the United States, and that there is scope for rapprochement. Specifically, he perceives there are common interests over issues such as combating terrorism.

Yet, US Defence Secretary James Mattis has said that "Russia is raising grave concerns on several fronts". This includes trying to "break the Northern Atlantic alliance . . . which needs integrated steps - diplomatic, economic, military and the alliance steps . . . to defend ourselves where we must".

ROLE OF TRUSTED FRIEND

Given the multiple uncertainties ahead in the Trump presidency, Mrs May is likely to seek to play the role of a trusted, albeit candid, friend in a bid to get close to the president to try to make the relationship work as smoothly as possible. This may provide some protections for bilateral relations in what could be a rocky few years of international relations to come, even if strong personal chemistry continues to fail to take root between the two leaders.

However, while this may be a sensible strategy, at least initially, it is not without risk, especially given Mr Trump's erratic nature and polarised standing in UK opinion. While seeking the potential upside in the new relationship, Mrs May would be wise not to overestimate the UK's ability to shape US power, nor be blind to the fact that Mr Trump's America First outlook may - ultimately - care little for core UK interests.

  • The writer is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics