Speaking to PoliticsHome, former diplomat and Lib Dem peer Paddy Ashdown warns that in the face of a US presidency that fails to be “thoughtful, intelligent and well informed”, the UK must look to build new alliances.
When even the ex-diplomats think the UK should rethink the special relationship with the US it’s probably time to start listening.
Paddy Ashdown – who spent time as a UK representative to the UN – says the election of Donald Trump has changed the game and left Britain with little choice but to veer away from being “totally oriented towards Washington”.
As Theresa May seeks to kiss and make up after fallouts with the US president and reset the special relationship, it’s probably not what she wants to hear. Today, Ashdown will open a debate in the House of Lords, setting out his stall for why changes in US policy and the power shifts across the globe are an ideal time for Britain to reassess its place in the world.
Speaking to PoliticsHome in advance, he says the UK finds itself having to “cope with an American president that may share our interests but doesn’t share our values – and I think that alters our relationship”.
“It does not mean that the Atlantic axis is going to be less important, but it ceases to be our primary axis on which to base our defence and probably our foreign policy as well.”
“That relationship must be much more mature, where both sides realise that there will be times when their interests in the world diverge,” he explains, citing US policy on Iran and Israel as two examples.
Beyond these ‘differing interests’ Ashdown presses the Government to distance itself from the “irrational” Trump approach on “tinder pile” issues like North Korea.
He says the Trump tactic – of mocking and baiting Kim Jong Un on Twitter, alongside battle-cry threats of “fire and fury” – simply creates a space for North Korea to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul, as shown by its offer of talks and participation in the upcoming winter Olympics in South Korea.
“We are used to a US president who is careful, thoughtful, intelligent and well informed, and we don’t have that now at the moment at all,” Ashdown laments.
“I can see five piles of tinder around the world, any one of which through inadvertence, stupidity or just blundering could be set alight… any one of which could have the capacity to ignite a much wider conflagration. And you want somebody blundering around the world, firing off tweets? In these very difficult circumstances I don’t think that’s the way to make a safer world. In a world as fragile, turbulent and close to war on several fronts as ours, I don’t think that’s a balanced and wise strategy.”
Ashdown berates Theresa May for getting into bed with the US president too quickly when she went to Washington a year ago, holding his hand on the White House grounds and offering him a state visit to Britain with all the trimmings. He says those who “took seriously the idea that Mr Trump was genuinely going to be producing a great trade deal” for Britain after Brexit were “really clinging to every straw on the Government side”. Damningly, he says he would not be surprised if the quality of that hoped-for trade deal is in fact affected by the shelving of the state visit plans. “I don’t think it’s at all beyond the expectation one has of Mr Trump’s actions that he will actually give us a bad trade deal particularly because he hasn’t had a state visit or a state banquet,” the peer predicts. “I think that’s what we are getting to.”
Ashdown says the US will not cede its position as the most powerful nation in the world in the foreseeable future, but he thinks “the context in which [Trump] holds that power is completely different”. He explains: “We are no longer living in a mono-polar world where the only foreign and defence policies were needed was to snuggle close to our neighbourhood super power. We have now got to develop other relationships and Britain’s capacity to follow our interests in the world is going to depend on building new alliances with all sorts of people.”
He says the US could continue to be the primary global relationship for the UK but “it will not be exclusive in the way it has been in the past”.
“We need to be much more flexible; much more subtle about our foreign policy; much less totally oriented towards Washington,” he continues. “Because the world isn’t – any longer – and foreign policy has to be relevant to the world in which you live.”
Witheringly, he adds: “I think our future lies in a different kind of world than the one [Trump] will be talking about. What is the risk of being foolish?”