I’ll preface this piece by saying that I believe that, even if we weren’t leaving the EU, maintaining the strongest relationship available with America is vital. I also believe that for all the innumerable faults that US foreign policy has had over the years, having an America that is engaged in the world as opposed to in retreat is a good thing. Yet Theresa May’s trip to America is looking like more and more of a disaster the greater the time we have to reflect on it becomes.
The problem with it was simple: approach and build up beforehand. May allowed the visit to be framed, particular by the right of centre press, as the start of Reagan-Thatcher Part Deux – the coming together of two likeminded nations, and going even further than previous relations between the two countries, the warm up to an historic trade deal. The UK was going to fly out of the European Union on the wings of access to the American market no other country could dream about.
That was a lot of expectation to put upon a meeting with a man May had never previously met and who is known mostly for being entirely selfish in negotiation situations, undiplomatic generally, having run on a protectionist platform to become president and had spouted rhetoric very recently about signing free trade deals with other nations only on the basis of the US walking away with a 30-day notice period on any grounds it felt like.
Sure enough, on the eve of the prime minister’s visit, Trump went and ordered confusing blocks on people coming into the US from seven countries in the Middle East. May had foolishly already promised Trump a state visit, thinking Trump was just like any other US president and not Donald Trump; i.e. someone she could trust to follow through with what they had discussed, not someone who would con 18 holes at Balmoral out of her and then leave her holding the bag afterwards.
A petition to block Trump getting his state visit is very close to gaining a million signatures. In practical terms this means absolutely nothing, but in symbolic terms it is huge, particularly as a distribution map of where the signatures are coming from reveals that this is far from a Remoaning fit from the metropolitan liberal elite down Londinium way. A lot of people, in Leave-land too, are clearly annoyed at how relations with Trump are being handled.
A lot of the focus has been on things like the now infamous “hand holding” incident, or May’s subsequent lack of criticism around the Muslim ban. Theresa May handled her time in America as well as anyone possible could have – it was the way she allowed expectation to build beforehand, around a famously unstable personality no less, that has for her into a spot of bother here.