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An Extraordinary Election. An Extraordinary First Year?

Next week marks the anniversary of Donald Trump’s extraordinary election victory, an achievement once thought so unlikely that even up to the eve of the poll pundits were predicting the probability of a Clinton win at 99%. That all changed as election night unfolded, as not only Ohio, North Carolina and Florida turned red, but also the Democrat bastions of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Trump’s year has been anything but dull on a range of issues, but it is perhaps his approach to foreign policy which seems the most troubling.

My entry for this blog last November suggested that President Trump’s blunt style would be in stark contrast to President Obama’s calm and cautious approach. However, it did not come close to predicting the ‘new normal’ of turmoil in the White House, with its many staffing changes and daily rows with the media, nor the drama of the ongoing inquiry into possible Russian influence over the 2016 election – something that could yet prove very damaging for US politics, and for President Trump in particular.

However, for Britain it has been Trump’s foreign policy which has most directly affected us. A number of developments have prompted concern, but the bigger picture is not wholly negative.

The chaos caused by his hastily-worded ‘travel ban’ gave rise to real upset to many British nationals, including to at least one Parliamentary colleague who feared he might not be able to see his son studying in the US. However, a reasonably timely update from the US authorities, no doubt influenced by some nimble footwork from our Embassy in Washington, provided clarity for those British nationals with a second passport from the affected countries.

This willingness to follow through on his campaign pledges has also led him to ratchet up the rhetoric with North Korea. Whilst one hopes that calm heads prevail, his policy of curbing North Korea’s nuclear development is one entirely shared with his predecessors, but failing since the first nuclear test in 2006 and the subsequent test detonations and missile testing.

Trump’s decision to de-certify Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, to give the nuclear deal its full name, is a most troubling action. The deal is the product of over a decade of patient and difficult diplomacy, and represents a fair and mutually beneficial agreement between Iran and the international community.

Perhaps Mr Trump has forgotten how close the West came to using military force just a few years ago to ‘solve’ the international community’s concerns over the so-called ‘suspected military dimensions’ to Iran’s nuclear programme. I recall how my back bench debate in February 2012, mildly calling on the British Government to rule out the use of military force in favour of greater diplomacy, was defeated by 285 votes to 6!

Perhaps the President has also forgotten how relations between Iran and the West were in the ‘deep freeze’ during the presidency of Mahmood Ahmadinejad, and how campaign promises to improve Iran’s international relations played a major part in the welcome but unexpected victory of President Rouhani in 2013, who has staked his political reputation on the success of the deal.

If it fails, the hardliners in Tehran will be in the ascendant, and will conclude that signing such agreements with the United States is naïve – as may other world leaders who arguably pose a threat to international peace and security. For many reasons, I hope the President changes his mind and uses his influence to persuade Congress, in whose court this now lies, to act accordingly.

Despite these developments, it would be wrong to see the Trump presidency through a solely negative prism. By all accounts Trump remains well-disposed to Britain, and continues to be supportive of Brexit. This will no doubt prove useful when we begin our formal discussions for a US-UK trade deal after we leave the EU in March 2019. As the elected President of our closest ally, I hope he is made welcome when he finally makes the journey over the Atlantic.

Furthermore, his reversal of some of the comments he made questioning the value of NATO during the election campaign came as a welcome American rededication to the Alliance. His personal recommitment to honour ‘Article V’ will reassure those NATO countries which share a border with Russia, and it is difficult to disagree with his Administration’s analysis that members of the Alliance need to take their own security more seriously.

We should not also forget that this message equally applies to us in Britain. For too long we have underspent on both our diplomatic and armed services, and must reverse this if we are to retain the ability to shape world events and opinion. For those who consider the current US President an unpredictable and unreliable ally, it makes sense to ensure our foreign policy and defence apparatus receive the resources – financial and human – necessary to meet our requirements with a margin of error to spare as insurance. If President Trump persuades the Government to address our present shortcomings, however indirectly, he will have done us good service.

John Baron MP

John Baron is a Member of Parliament for Basildon and Billericay. His special interests include defence and the financial services sector. He was a member of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee between 2010 and 2017. Before entering politics, he was a Captain in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and then a merchant banker. He is the author of  Politeia’s Hard Choices: Britain’s Foreign Policy for a Dangerous World and co-authored  The UK and the EU: Security, Justice and Defence After Brexit (published with New Direction)

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