Everybody else was talking about economics. But all through the Brexit referendum campaign and in the months after the vote, I worried about British geopolitics. I worried about Britain’s alliances. I worried that the protracted divorce negotiations between Britain and its closest economic and political partners would create misunderstandings and eventually anger — and indeed, this is already coming to pass.
I also worried that Britain would slowly begin to redefine itself as a country outside the Western alliance. Isolated, looking for trade partners and political friends, Britain might even drift away from European and transatlantic institutions and instead seek closer relationships with Russia and China, two countries which already have a large presence in the British economy. But I failed to imagine what has actually transpired: that Britain — isolated and really quite desperately looking for trading partners and political friends — would rush with thanks and relief into the arms of Donald Trump, a U.S. president who is drifting away from European and transatlantic institutions too.
Improbably, this is where we are. The British prime minister, Theresa May, arrived in the United States this week for her first visit to Trump’s White House. Weeks ago, the Trump transition team told many in Britain that the president wants a “deal” to reward the country for Brexit, a surprise vote that he equates with his own victory. Whether he understands why Britain left the European Union — whether he knows anything about Britain at all except that it has decent golf courses — doesn’t matter. Informed of his intention, an ecstatic May has already told the British press what she will tell the new U.S. government: “As we rediscover our confidence together, as you renew your nation just as we renew ours, we have the opportunity — indeed the responsibility — to renew the special relationship for this new age. We have the opportunity to lead, together, again.”
But whom will the United States and Britain be leading? And in which direction? Here we come to a stumbling block. Forced by the radicals in her party to abandon any hope of a closer relationship with Europe, May has struggled for months to relaunch a positive vision of “Brexit Britain.” Finally, she lit upon the word “global.” Last week she told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that she believes in a “truly global Britain” and a “rules-based global order,” and that she wants Britain to be an advocate of global free markets too. Even in the British context, this struck a dissonant chord: If Britain is so keen on free trade, then why is it leaving the European single market, the largest and wealthiest free-trade zone in the world, along with its 27 existing free-trade deals? And if Britain admires the rules-based international order, why is it distancing itself from the nations that care about that order most?
In the context of the newly developing U.S.-U.K. “special relationship,” the very idea of “global Britain” sounds bizarre. The U.S. president’s campaign made the word “globalist” into an insult. In his inaugural address, Trump spoke of “America First” and promised to follow two simple rules: “Buy American and hire American.” He expressed no special interest in the “rules-based global order.” His recent claim that the United States should have stolen Iraqi oil as “spoils of war” shows that he doesn’t even know what it means.
Of course May might, after years of haggling, eventually get a deal. Maybe the fact that Britain is relatively small and relatively white will ensure that it’s a good one, though many fear that the trade lawyers of a big country will invariably force the trade lawyers of a small country to make painful concessions. But whatever that deal looks like and whenever it comes, May’s broader “global” vision is doomed, at least as long as it is tied to a protectionist and isolationist U.S. president. The conundrum remains: In almost every conceivable sphere of economics and foreign policy, May’s views align more closely with the rest of Europe than with Trump’s America. Too bad she is shackled to a party and a policy that prevent her from acting on that obvious truth.