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Theresa May: Diplomat or Appeaser?

A considered look at both sides of the argument

Natalie Hunter

Naked Politics Blogger 

An estimated 35,000 people amassed outside Downing Street on 30th January 2017 at only two days’ notice. Just in case you’ve somehow missed it, it was in response to President Trump’s executive order on a travel ban into the US for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries and a temporary total ban on Syrian refugee entries.

If like me, you were there, you would have been able to sense the anger, frustration and hatred in the air; maybe you felt it yourself. However not all of this anger was directed at Donald Trump. Alongside the chants of “you can’t build a wall, your hands are too small” and (my personal favourite) “stop the Muslim ban, you stupid orange man” there were chants just as vitriolic at our own Prime Minister. “Theresa the appeaser, you are not my leader”. This begs the question: what is the role of a leader? More specifically, what is the role of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, especially a post-Brexit Prime Minister faced with a president whose style and substance is so unprecedented?

People I spoke to at the demonstration were furious at May for her failure to condemn Trump’s travel ban. When pushed, she stated simply that she does“not agree” with it, but that America’s immigration decisions are its own to make. This of course appears all the worse as the announcement of the executive order was made almost immediately after she left the White House (and after that excruciating hand-holding moment). She is now under increasing pressure to declare whether she was briefed on this order. For many, a lack of condemnation equates acceptance. In an effort to pop my ever-present ‘filter bubble’, I thought a thorough understanding of the other side’s arguments would be a good idea.

Supporters of May argue that it is important to maintain good relations between the UK and the USA, especially now that our exit from the EU will leave us more trade opportunities with America. One of Trump’s advisors has hinted at a deal similar to that of Canada and America. A strong UK-US trade agreement could cut import-export tariffs and potentially facilitate easier movements of people between the two countries. Proponents argue that a good deal with America would give Britain much needed leverage in negotiations in Brussels as well as creating new employment and travel opportunities for both British and American citizens. From this angle, May’s lack of condemnation could be seen as safeguarding Britain’s future and ensuring the best trade situation for our country outside of the EU.

There is also another argument to be made for diplomacy towards Trump: he is erratic. We know that he does not respond well to people disagreeing with him. His firing of acting Attorney General Sally Yates when she refused to enforce his travel ban was swift and sent out a clear message: If you dispute my orders, you are gone. This was echoed by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s statement that dissenting state department workers should “get with the program or go”. This regime of stamping out the opposition is in full flow. How would the Trump administration have responded had May spoken out? German Chancellor Angela Merkel did not shy away from rebuking Trump, both immediately after his election and following the announcement of the controversial travel ban. Her advisors state that she explained the clauses of the refugee convention’s requirement of “the international community to take in war refugees on humanitarian grounds”. Whilst there has been no direct response from the Trump administration, Germany’s senior ministers are now voicing concerns of sidelining by the USA, with increasing focus being placed on the UK as America’s strategic partner in Europe.  Whilst much of this is likely down to the UK’s imminent exit from the EU, it would not be a big stretch to imagine that Trump’s personal feelings about the leaders also plays some role.

There are more chilling factors at play here too. China and Iran are already in Trump’s firing line, with disputes over the South China Sea bubbling away and strategic moves in Yemen in place. We know Trump and his advisors are not likely to shy away from confrontation, even with the world’s second largest military power. In the case of conflict between these vastly powerful states, it will surely be beneficial to be on America’s side. Maybe May had this more long-term goal in mind; maybe her silence is keeping us safe.

But this is where I struggle. Because I have tried (and tried and tried, see last 400 words) to justify May’s silence. However, none of the above arguments convince me that it is anything other than compliance and cowardice.

First of all, as stated above, Trump is erratic. What’s to stop him changing his mind and turning on Britain any moment anyway? Isn’t all of this sycophancy just embarrassing when he could change his mind at any time?

Aside from trying to predict the new President’s behaviour, however, is the more important issue. Some situations demand diplomacy. Others do not. The ban of millions of people based purely on country of birth – even green card holders – based on minimal fact (no fatal terrorist attacks caused by citizens of any of those countries), as well as the refusal of asylum to any of the 6 million displaced Syrian citizens for 6 months? No. That situation does not demand diplomacy, it demands condemnation.  Fascism does not demand diplomacy. May stated before leaving for Washington that it is important to tell Trump when he is wrong – so why not now? What would Trump have to do for May to stand up to him? Talk of the ‘special relationship’ from our Prime Minister appears sycophantic and cowardly. If one half of said relationship reveals itself to be a nativist and a fascist, it seems to be a good idea to get out as soon as possible.

The truth is, nobody really knows how to treat Trump. The political rule book has been thrown out; established theories of international relations and politics no longer hold. Trump is a president unlike any other and he does not follow any predictable guidelines. In the world of “alternative facts” his administration is working to build does it even matter what we do? Won’t they simply construct a version of events that fits their narrative (doublethink and Ministry of Truth ringing any bells?).

The one thing we do know is that history never looks kindly on those who refuse to stand up to evil, and history is most certainly watching us now. After all the talk of British values thrown around in the Brexit debate, I beg you, Theresa May, stand up for common decency. Don’t let Britain be remembered as the appeaser state.

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