Our task is to make the UK break from Trump
20 January 2018
So just ahead of today’s anniversary of his inauguration, Donald Trump has once again called off a visit to the UK, this time to open the new US embassy in London. It’s another victory for the more than a million people who signed a petition against his state visit, and the millions more who were willing to mobilise to show that Trump is not welcome here.
But beyond Trump’s almost daily dosage of vitriolic statements, it is crucial to examine how his actual policies in his first year in office have continued or differed with previous US presidents, and how Trumponomics and foreign policy are shaping global politics. Plus, are the UK government’s continuing efforts to ally closely with Trump enabling his racism, highly exploitative form of capitalism and warmongering?
UK political figures often mention the importance of the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and the US. The way this evolves influences everyday life here in the UK. So it’s good to observe that lately, the UK has shown signs of seeing less virtue in kowtowing to Trump. In her UN address last September, Theresa May equated the US withdrawal from the Paris climate change treaty alongside North Korea’s nuclear missile tests as a threat to global prosperity and security. And her government has criticised his efforts to undermine the UK's approach to Islamist terrorism – including by rebuking Trump for his support for the ultranationalist group Britain First.
All of this is an improvement from the Prime Minister’s initial approach. Her offer of a state visit in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election is widely seen as premature, brought about by the desperate desire to do a post-Brexit trade deal with the US. When Trump refused to condemn the violent Unite the Right neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia that showed the ugly face of white America last August, May’s criticism was inadequate.
This week, although May did not condemn Trump’s description of Haiti, El Salvador and some African nations as “shithole countries”, she did say she does not share it. Trump’s lack of knowledge about the US’s colonial footprints and predatory relationship with Haiti, which contributed to the country’s current desperate state of poverty, should make many in the UK reflect about this country’s problematic view of its own imperial history. But, that is another story.
The US may not be the global hegemon that it used to be, but it is still the world’s most powerful country and still possesses the biggest arsenal of the most sophisticated, powerful and dangerous weapons in the world. While the UK is not as powerful, this doesn’t mean that it can’t offer alternatives. But this would take a fundamental shift – especially in policies like global trade and investment, migration, welfare, labour relations and tax.
Examining Trump’s foreign policy
If we look closely, we can actually see that Trump’s foreign policy shows some continuity with the policies that past US presidents have adopted since Nixon’s visit to China. The priority has always been to ensure that international structures, institutions and processes benefit American strategic interests. While no previous US presidents have so explicitly adopted a policy of “America first”, they have nonetheless managed to ensure that weaker countries align their policies to serve US interests. The US has frequently intervened in the affairs of these countries whenever possible and destroyed their chances for self-determination and empowerment if they are seen as a threat. I know this first-hand as I am from the Philippines, a country that has received all that treatment from the US since the 1900s.
Last weekend’s mistakenly sent warning of an imminent ballistic missile by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, which led people to panic and agonize over their lives and their loved ones for 38 minutes, was a strong wake-up call to how close we are to another world war. The scary part is that factors like delicate judgement, crisis management and the ability for de-escalation are skills that are not being displayed by Trump in the White House. This time around, any war will surely be nuclear.
Barack Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” policy committed to shift 60% of US naval assets to the Asia-Pacific region by 2020. Trump’s election promise was to upgrade the US military’s hardware and manpower, including the construction of 80 advanced warships. Currently, the US military budget is still five times bigger than China’s and Trump is prioritising upgrades to the US nuclear arsenal at the expense of healthcare, education and other basic services.
Most of Trump’s Cabinet are financial capitalists who are also nationalists, racists and authoritarians like him. Together they are successfully pushing the US back to the 1945 foreign policy posture of maintaining ‘primacy’, classifying countries it sees as other great powers – Russia then and China now – as challengers to US influence, values and wealth.
To some extent, then, Trump represents a discontinuity and an acceleration and intensification of these processes. The continuity has gone so far that it has turned into a rupture.
The UK must resist Trump’s global agenda
Despite the fact that Trump is not coming, we have not yet managed to turn the movement slogan of ‘Trump is not welcome here’ into a change of government policy, as Theresa May has shown no signs that she intends to withdraw the invitation for his state visit. As the movements from below resist Trump and his kind of politics, it is vital we put pressure on the UK government to propose solutions to world problems which are rooted in overtly resisting Trump’s global agenda.
This could start, for example, with the UK committing to strengthen the United Nations – which Trump is pulling funding from – by giving more to its various operations of protecting human rights. It should show that people and the environment matter more than big business by supporting the ongoing process of building a binding UN Treaty on transnational corporations.
Most importantly, it is time to acknowledge that we in the UK are already living in a long crisis that started in 2008 and is continuing, thanks to the UK’s four decades of strong support and championing of neoliberal policies. On trade relations with other countries, the UK government must realise that it is no longer possible to negotiate free trade agreements that trade away people’s rights with blind consent from the parliament and the public.
Trump is not the only problem and it is inadequate that people simply brand him as crazy. There is a deeper crisis of US and global capitalism, a crisis that has resulted in the emergence of a solid political base of 35% of the US population, underpinned by far-right nationalist-populist movements, that brought Trump to power. In the UK and the rest of Europe, there is a hard right, neo-fascist political movement emerging too.
It is heartening to see that there are a growing number of people critical of the few that are enriching themselves at the expense of the many. However, there is still much work to do to break the unwillingness to see the problem as a conflict and that it must be addressed in a collective manner. Confronting the UK government’s policies is also a way of resisting Trump.
Photo: Stop Trump Coalition