Interview with Sir Peter Westmacott, distinguished ambassadorial fellow at the Atlantic Council
US President Donald Trump will meet British Prime Minister Theresa May—his first meeting with a head of state or government since his inauguration on January 20—at the White House on January 27.
Sir Peter Westmacott, distinguished ambassadorial fellow at the Atlantic Council who served as the United Kingdom’s ambassador to the United States from 2012-2016, discussed what to expect from the meeting, the future of the US-UK “special relationship,” and the challenges in the transatlantic relationship and those posed by the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.
Sir Peter Westmacott spoke in a phone interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from our interview.
Q: What are your expectations from Prime Minister May’s visit to Washington?
Westmacott: The first visit to the White House after the election of a new president is always important for a British prime minister. It is particularly important for Theresa May at this point because President Trump has been strongly supportive of the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union, and has himself said that [his election] is Brexit to the power of three. There is an empathy at the political level, which helps provide support to the British government as it tries to fulfil the British people’s June 23 decision [to leave the European Union].
From the British government’s point of view, it is very important to make early progress once the UK has left the European Union and the single market, with its own bilateral free-trade agreements with major commercial partners. For the UK, there is no more important commercial partner than the United States. This emphasis on bilateral trade agreements happens to fit with the Donald Trump view of international affairs. He has taken the United States out of the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership]; he doesn’t appear to be a big enthusiast of bigger, global, collective free-trade agreements; but he does believe in bilateral trade links with privileged partners.
For Theresa May, the visit is important also because she is the first foreign leader whom Donald Trump will be meeting. That gives her an opportunity to engage with him on a number of major global issues and to talk to him about some the big European security and structural issues, including the future of the European Union, which are of concern not only to the United Kingdom, but also to other European governments.
To the extent that Theresa May is able to get Donald Trump engaged in a constructive way on some of these issues, I believe it can be helpful to the negotiations that the British government will be having with its European partners as we take forward the whole Brexit process.
Q: President Trump has taken foreign policy positions that appear to be at odds with the UK’s—he wants, for example, to rip up the Iran nuclear deal, ditch the two-state solution in the Middle East, and strike deals with Russia on Ukraine and Syria. You know the prime minister. Do you expect her to bring the president around to the British viewpoint on these issues?
Westmacott: I am sure that these important foreign policy issues will be on the agenda. On some of them I would hope that the prime minister would be able to bring the president around.
On Iran, the British government does take the view that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [JCPOA] that we negotiated and concluded collectively in 2015, is the least bad way of stopping Iran’s nuclear program. There isn’t a better deal out there. I would expect Mrs. May to make the case for not walking away from the deal.
On the Middle East peace process, the US and the British governments have worked very closely together on a number of initiatives to try to take forward the concept of a two-state solution because we think that is the right way forward. If we are left with a one-state solution you end up with an Israel that is either Jewish or democratic, but not both. That would be a concern for anyone concerned about Israel’s future, and the rights of the Palestinians. I would imagine that Mrs. May would want to talk to the Trump administration about that, but President Trump and his advisors seem less committed to the two-state approach than the Obama administration was.
Russia is obviously a major concern for European governments, including the UK. We are amongst those European governments that feel it is important to keep the sanctions [imposed on Russia in response to its annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine] in place as long as the Minsk agreements have not been implemented. It is very important to continue to be clear that the territorial integrity of sovereign, independent states is inviolate.
President Trump has made clear that he believes it is right to try and strike deals with [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin. He says he wants to start from a position of trust and see where that goes. They have not met yet. I think we would all be glad if it proved possible for the United States to have a better relationship with a Russia that is less threatening its neighbors, so that the security of Western Europe is stronger rather than weaker.
We would also like to see an end to the ghastly slaughter in Syria where Russia has been more instrumental in continuing the war than in moving toward any sort of solution. The British view, like that of the United States and our European partners, has been that the future of Syria is not one that leaves President [Bashar] Assad in charge. It would be extraordinary given the carnage, the humanitarian suffering in Syria and the associated refugee crisis if this was not on the agenda for Mrs. May and President Trump.
On other big issues, including climate change, President Trump has said a number of things on the campaign trail and since he was elected which may or may not translate into the policies of the incoming administration. One of the interesting challenges for Theresa May is going to be to find out how far that is going to be the case.
Q: The Supreme Court in the UK has ruled that Parliament must vote on whether the government can trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to start the process of exiting the EU. What is the likely impact of this ruling on the British government’s Brexit plans?
Westmacott: I don’t think it will change much. The timetable that the prime minister has set is to begin negotiations by the end of March. Her government is ready with the necessary enabling legislation. It does not look as though the House of Commons will vote against getting the Article 50 process started, though Theresa May’s timetable could slip if there are delays in the House of Lords. As it stands, I think the main significance of the Supreme Court ruling is to underline the sovereignty of Parliament in taking decisions which affect the long-term future of our country.
Q: Do you expect Brexit to diminish the “special relationship” between the United States and the UK?
Westmacott: There are a lot of uncertainties. From the point of view of the incoming US administration, Brexit is a good thing. They are not particularly attached to multilateral organizations. Direct bilateral relationships with strong, reliable, longstanding, and likeminded partners like the United Kingdom are a higher priority.
If we can make early progress on free trade, that would further strengthen what is already a very strong bilateral relationship, including as trading partners: Britain already does nearly twice as much trade with the United States as with its second-largest trading partner, Germany.
The Obama administration was concerned that the United Kingdom outside the European Union would weaken the voice of the EU, and could diminish United Kingdom’s influence in the world. The UK will have to make sure, particularly in the foreign and security policy areas and the boarder political context, that we continue to be a force for good and are not less significant outside the EU than we have been within it.
Q: How does one square Britain’s desire for a free-trade agreement with Trump’s protectionist agenda?
Westmacott: President Trump has conveyed a lot of protectionist measures during the campaign and since his election. His inauguration speech was worrying to those who believe in more rather than less free trade. It was very strongly “America first.” Yet, the Trump administration says it is very interested in bilateral trade deals with likeminded partners. So, there are two realities out there which we will need to reconcile.
From the UK’s point of view, lower tariffs but also reducing barriers, harmonizing technical standards, professional qualifications, and regulatory frameworks are all important. So is the liberalization of services and access to public procurement opportunities. We will be looking to make progress in those areas in terms of a free-trade agreement.
Donald Trump is somebody who is not against free trade, but is opposed to what he regards as unfair trade. The key, I suspect, will be to seek a free-trade agreement that is fair to all sides, which will involve give and take from both.
The politics of free trade has, unfortunately deteriorated in recent years because of the perception that free trade has been more about making the wealthy more prosperous and less about ensuring that the losers are properly looked after.
Q: More broadly, what are the challenges and opportunities you see in the transatlantic relationship with Trump in the White House?
Westmacott: We are dealing with a president who is very different from what we have had before; an administration which is made up of people who have little experience of government; a president who has struck positions on international affairs, alliances, race, security issues, intelligence gathering, trade barriers, and so on which are very different from those of previous US presidents. The challenge will be to work out how many of those statements are the real positions of the new administration; where is the common ground; and what are the differences that need to be resolved.
Q: What impact does Trump’s praise for Brexit, predictions that other nations will also leave the European Union, and description of NATO as “obsolete” have on the cohesion of these institutions?
Westmacott: On NATO there are two main points made by President Trump. One is about burden sharing and the importance of everybody else in Europe, not just the United States, paying their share of the bill. That is a legitimate concern, and one that used to come up regularly in my contacts with the Obama administration.
The suggestion that NATO was “obsolete,” undoubtedly caused a lot of alarm in Alliance capitals, but I’m not sure that it meant there is no longer any need for NATO. In recent days, members of the incoming administration have been seeking to reassure NATO allies on this point. I believe their concern was more that NATO had failed to adapt to some of the changes in the international security architecture, such as how best to deal with the threats from cyber, terrorists, non-state actors, and lone wolves.
As for the European Union, some remarks coming out of Washington about the future of the EU undoubtedly caused alarm at a time when Europe has got a lot of problems within the Eurozone, with the migration crisis, high unemployment, and the rise of fringe parties and candidates. One of the early messages that many European heads of government will be conveying to President Trump is that the European Union has served an important purpose, by keeping Europe at peace and prosperous, and remains an important partner and ally of the United States. Yes, it has got its own challenges, which the member states are seeking to address, but they don’t regard it as helpful to talk down those efforts and to suggest that other members are going to leave when no other member is actually talking about doing so.
Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director of communications at the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.