Some politicians are very good at letting people down. Latest twists in US trade negotiations, and in Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, have provoked stress and disillusionment among both supporters and adversaries of President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Theresa May. The reason for the disappointment: an unexpected tilt towards pragmatism.
Some might have expected, or even hoped, that the international political scene would become a theatre of bigotry, conflict and tantrums. The last word has yet to be spoken. There is still plenty of room for acrimony and worse – not just on trade and economics, but also on North Korea, Isis, Russia, and the South China Sea. But, in the past few days, the US and British leaders have shown they are perfectly capable of reasonable policies designed around compromise rather than confrontation.
A 100-day plan to address trade imbalances between China and the US seems the most important result of Trump’s Florida meeting last week with President Xi Jinping of China.
The US president carried out what appears to have been another valuable service by removing his top aide Steve Bannon from the White House National Security Council. The former head of right-wing website Breitbart News had seemed out of place in that role.
Contrasting with past caricatural statements, Trump in the last two weeks has stressed his belief in alliances, relationships and partnerships with mainstream world leaders. Further shifts to the sensible part of the international policy spectrum may follow.
In similar vein, May appears to have won the backing of key UK cabinet eurosceptics for a more lenient approach to EU departure talks, which she wants to culminate in ‘a deep and special partnership deal’. May might have thought that some cabinet hardliners could have posed problems for her by opposing any sign of a reversal on entrenched Brexit positions. But both Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, as well as Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, have shown emollience.
In a retreat from Brexit orthodoxy, Britain has said it would abide by some rules – including free movement of citizens – during a transition period in which new regulations are phased in. On a visit to Saudi Arabia last week, May attuned her EU dictum to realpolitik principles, accepting that no full trade deal can be concluded until after the UK leaves and conceding that immigration from the EU could continue until after the next British election in 2020.
May summed up reality: ‘Once we’ve got the deal, once we’ve agreed what the new relationship will be for the future, it will be necessary for there to be a period of time when businesses and governments are adjusting systems and so forth, depending on the nature of the deal, a period of time during which that deal will be implemented.’
It is all starting to resemble the ‘flexible “halfway house” relationship’ I outlined in the days after the June referendum last year: ‘The UK and its EU partners will still carry out substantial trade and investment. Britain will make reduced payments into the European budget. And restrictions, but no swingeing clampdown, will be in place on the free movement of people between the UK and the EU.’
After Trump’s and Xi’s first encounter on Friday, US officials said the goal was to agree on a way to increase US exports to China rather than lowering Beijing’s sales to America. Raising all countries’ interests in a more prosperous, stable and equitable common future might look like a commonplace – but it does seem the right way ahead.
David Marsh is Managing Director of OMFIF.