It is difficult to think of a time when the relationship between an American President and a British PM has been more unequal

Editorial
AP

The European Union is not the only supranational institution facing fundamental challenges. At the United Nations General Assembly in New York, President Trump has reiterated his view that the global body must reform if it is to retain a sense of purpose in the modern world.

The President has long been a critic of the UN. His transactional approach to all things has led him to conclude that is overfunded (particularly by the US, which contributes 22 per cent of its core budget and 28 per cent of its peacekeeping costs) and underperforming. As he memorably tweeted last December: “The UN has such great potential but right now it is just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time.”

It is likely that a number of delegates will not have had a good time during the President’s address on Tuesday. While he referred to the beautiful vision that led to the UN’s creation, he appeared more concerned to defend his “America first” policy; and to encourage other nations to follow his lead. That alone will heighten the concerns of those who see Mr Trump as, at heart, an isolationist and a nationalist.

Yet Mr Trump’s isolationist instincts are frequently undermined by his innate belligerence and by a desperate desire to suggest that only he has the answer to the world’s problems. Fancifully, Mr Trump used his speech to claim credit for achieving more against Isis in the past eight months than either America or anybody else had in the years before he took office. He also laid out a stark warning to Kim Jong-un, saying that if necessary the US would “totally destroy” North Korea. Iran came under fire as a “corrupt dictatorship”, and the governments of Cuba and Venezuela came in for criticism too.

In terms of making an oratorical splash, therefore, Mr Trump did not disappoint; although – as so often – there were few concrete proposals behind the bombastic rhetoric.

Theresa May is also in New York for the UN meeting and has used the opportunity to call on other world leaders to work together in the fight against modern slavery. It is an important intervention and, while Ms May’s authority is weak compared with Mr Trump’s, she appears to have deployed it more wisely than her American counterpart.

Yet the contrast in these two leaders’ positions will perhaps be most apparent when they meet tomorrow for bilateral discussions. For the Prime Minister there will presumably be momentary relief that she can focus on different flaxen locks from those that have dominated her thoughts since Sunday. More substantively, she will hope that the President can offer some positive words regarding future UK-US trade arrangements in advance of her showpiece Brexit speech in Florence on Friday. With relations in the Cabinet strained almost to breaking point, a revival of the special relationship would provide a welcome fillip.

Ms May will also be hopeful that she can find in the US President an ally in her battle to persuade big tech companies to do more to combat the spread of terrorist propaganda and extremism on the internet.

No doubt Donald Trump will say something complimentary but it is difficult to think of a time when the relationship between an American President and a British Prime Minister has been more unequal. And for the man who has made a career out of making deals, it will be all too obvious that Ms May can offer him very little that he actually wants. Post-Brexit trade between the two countries is important, of course, but Mr Trump will know that he holds the whip hand on that front. As for clamping down on internet extremism, he may agree in principle but he is, in fact, in no better position to do anything about it. Nor is the matter at the top of his own policy agenda.

With the UK embroiled in the difficult process of leaving the EU, it can no longer offer influence over European partners in return for trade favours, while its military capabilities are increasingly a mere trifle when set against America’s own.

All that may be left for the Prime Minister will be to repeat her invitation of a state visit. And knowing how much anger that will create back at home, that is hardly a straightforward option.

By the end of this week, Theresa May might have concluded definitively that when it comes to political gentlemen, she does not prefer blonds.

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