Trump being invited so early is unusual, but plans had been made for Clinton tooby Arthur Snell / February 8, 2017 / Leave a comment
“It’s a nightmare,” my colleague remarked, head in hands. “The only people that care he’s coming are the ones who plan to protest, his team is impossible to please and we can’t think of anything meaningful to do during the visit.”
The task of arranging the state visit of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in 2007 proved challenging, as I recall from my peripheral involvement at the time. State visits require a set of largely meaningless ceremonial activities to appear to be profound expressions of two countries’ shared values and fraternal relations. For Saudi Arabia, a conference on youth and education had to have a carefully constructed agenda that avoided any controversy. The most striking message to King Abdullah had been sent by her Majesty when she took him for a drive: the female head of state who drove ambulances in wartime driving the head of a state that forbids females from driving. Nonetheless, the media was largely negative and protesters drew attention to the Saudis’ poor human rights record.
Some of the difficulties of state visits are more mundane: the visiting ruler is a guest of Her Majesty and will usually stay at Buckingham Palace; but it turns out it’s one of those houses that looks bigger from the outside and doesn’t have many spare rooms. So the visiting party has to be warned that only a tiny number of the inner circle actually gets to stay. For a middle eastern monarch with a huge entourage, this is a difficult point to get across. But the point about Buckingham Palace bedrooms is key: a state visit is the highest honour that the government has at its disposal for a foreign leader and is formally our head of state hosting the visitor. Heads of state visit London constantly but it’s not a state visit unless the Queen is hosting.
Fast forward to November 2016 and another state visit was under consideration. This one was uncontroversial: the Foreign Office was confident that Hillary Clinton would win the US presidential election and planned to offer her an unusually early invitation to the UK. In a post-Brexit world, the UK could not afford to allow any distance between itself and the USA and the Foreign Office view was that the Clintons were naturally more sympathetic to the UK than Barack Obama had been.
The shock of Donald Trump’s victory may have disrupted these plans but Theresa May’s advisers pushed ahead and invited Trump to a State Visit within days of his inauguration. This was unprecedented and (as has been noted by one of Britain’s most senior retired diplomats) put the Queen in a difficult position: the norm is to allow a Head of State a bit of time to find their feet before according them the honour. Things took a turn for the worse when Trump’s worst threats from the campaign (such as building a wall with Mexico) turned out to be real policies and two million signed a petition calling for the visit to be cancelled. No. 10 realised that its strategic thinking had been found wanting because it briefly tried to put the blame onto an obscure Whitehall committee. But the plan for a Trump visit was in place before his inauguration and it is line with a clear policy of the May government to be as close as possible to Trump, whatever the negative press. Witness No. 10’s unusual criticism of then-outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry and the UK’s limited participation in the Paris conference on Palestine, both significant deviations from established policies that were clearly undertaken to ingratiate the UK with the incoming Trump administration.
Such approaches come with risks: European leaders are unimpressed with the UK’s attempts to be the “bridge” between Europe and Trump’s America. This is because “the” special relationship is a British fiction: US policy people will admit that there may be “a” special relationship with the UK as well as with a few other like-minded countries. But only in the minds of right-wing British journalists and Conservative politicians is this relationship unique. Those that doubt this would be well-placed to note that most major global powers invest significant resources in their relationship with the USA, with many countries boasting of a special relationship. My own experience of working in coalition operations in Iraq and Afghanistan made perfectly clear that being British afforded no unique privileges.
The question that remains is: what can be done with Trump’s state visit? Now that the invitation has been issued it is very hard to imagine it being withdrawn: this would represent a severe diplomatic snub and would play particularly badly with the brittle ego of the new president. But there can be no getting away from the fact that massive protests seem guaranteed, providing the opportunity for acres of negative news coverage. The Commons Speaker John Bercow has already announced that Trump will not be welcome to address parliament in Westminster Hall, further underlining the negativity that surrounds the entire visit.
But the whole thing could be postponed if a convenient excuse can be found: two of these may present themselves. A state visit is very unlikely to take place if the Trump team’s ambassador in London has yet to take office. Given the slow rate of nominations to key roles and the bitterly partisan atmosphere on Capitol Hill, it is possible that a delayed confirmation of the Ambassador of the United States to the Court of St James provides the perfect excuse for postponement in 2017, with the slim possibility that Trump looks less toxic by 2018. The second possibility is trickier, but the Queen, who turns 91 in April, has reduced her commitments and has suffered occasional absences from ill-health. Might this provide an opportunity for gentle delay, citing excess pressure on our nonagenarian leader?
In which case, the best bet might be for the Foreign Office to draw up an agenda so stultifyingly boring that protest withers into indifference. After all, this almost worked for King Abdullah.