Donald Trump will touch down in the UK on Thursday afternoon, following what’s already a fractious NATO summit in Brussels, and arriving amidst ongoing political ‘turmoil’ (his term) for Prime Minister Theresa May and the Conservative Government. Trump is not the happiest of travellers, preferring to spend as much of his presidency as possible in the US, preferably ensconced in one of his own properties. That said, since his first overseas trip as President to Saudi Arabia in May 2017, he has visited close ally Israel, been lavishly entertained by Macron in Paris, and enjoyed State Visits to South Korea, China and Japan. With NATO and G7 visits taking in other allies such as Belgium, Germany, Canada and Switzerland, as well as the Kim handshake in Singapore, a visit to the UK seems long overdue. But at the moment, the ‘Special Relationship’ is paper-thin. Trump has got away with protest in other countries largely through being saved by a language barrier and time differences from his base. But touching down in the UK will be in prime time, with any mocking protests shouting loud to his base – many of whom still believe he’s loved around the world.
This is the president of bi-lateral agreements – he sees Brexit as one of his achievements. So arriving with the Government still mired in Brexit uncertainty won’t play well with him. For Trump, there is no ‘Special Relationship’. His focus is America First and he’s interested only in deals where the cards are stacked in his favour. Theresa May probably doesn’t want this meeting now either. Sandwiched between an angry-Trump NATO summit performance and the President’s tete-à-tete with another strongman in Putin, there’s probably little value in a meeting with the US President now other than to fulfil the promise when he first entered the White House – and to play catch-up with Macron, Merkel, Abe et al.
For Trump, this is all about the ratings: military pomp at Blenheim; heads of government exchanging views at Chequers and most of all meeting the Queen at Windsor. All that matters is the optics. Get that right and the trip will be a success. Few in Britain may respect this president, but the Office of president matters. Expect the protesters to be kept at a distance and bitten tongues and crossed fingers from all involved in government. It’ll help if England beat Croatia in the world cup semi-final – that will raise the euphoria levels and dilute presidential protest. But an England defeat could plunge the nation into angry gloom. If that’s the case, Trump may feel the wrath.
Mark Shanahan is a Lecturer in politics & IR at the University of Reading.