The Insider

How Prime Minister Starmer should deal with President Trump

It‘s hard to think of two politicians less alike. So what would the special relationship look like with them both in charge?

February 21, 2024
Donald Trump on a previous visit to the UK during his term as president in 2019. Image: White House Photo / Alamy
Donald Trump on a previous visit to the UK during his term as president in 2019. Image: White House Photo / Alamy

It is hard to think of two politicians—or people—less alike than Donald Trump and Keir Starmer. So what happens if they are in charge of their respective countries in a year’s time?

It all depends whether Trump stays in Nato or not, and persuading him to stay in will be the overwhelming focus of a Starmer administration in concert with our European allies.

A decision to leave Nato is probably one that Trump can’t take unilaterally without Congressional support. A recent bipartisan Congressional act makes it illegal for a president to leave Nato without a two-thirds majority in the Senate. But in practice, even assuming this provision survives the Supreme Court if contested, what may matter more is whether Trump Two is a willing or unwilling participant in the defence of Europe.

Trump One stayed in Nato, even deploying more US troops to eastern Europe as a warning to Putin not to invade the Baltics or Poland. He made bellicose noises about Europeans paying more for their defence—as he did again last week—but didn’t actually withdraw US support or curtail US defence commitments.

Maybe this was because he was too tied to the US defence and foreign policy establishment to do otherwise. But I suspect it was equally a function of Trump’s strong anti-China stance, particularly on trade, which made it impolitic and dangerous for the US to have Europe offside too.

Paradoxically the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which Trump has barely criticised, may tie Trump Two’s hands in a similar way. For while Trump is unlikely to pour vast new US aid into Ukraine, an outright licence for Vladimir Putin to threaten eastern Europe by leaving or undermining Nato would only encourage Xi Jinping—in increasingly close alliance with Putin—to act with similar impunity in Taiwan and beyond. A rampant China and Russia, and an unstable Europe, would be a multiple threat to US trade and security—and hopefully too dangerous even for Trump to contemplate.

Starmer’s instinct will be to keep the temperature low with Trump, engage with him patiently and respectfully, while working closely with France and Germany to present a united front which accommodates him as far as possible. This is the right course, but it is far from pain-free as it will almost certainly require substantial real increases in defence spending across Europe, including in the UK, to be effective. And there is little spare cash to start with.

Fortunately Starmer is precisely the leader for such a policy, because patient diplomacy is what he does. Moreover, he has no Tory hangups about engagement with Europe, least of all on security issues. If Trump wants Europe to pay tribute to save his face, without fundamentally changing policy, then Starmer is probably the leader for the job.

It helps that UK military bases and capacity are invaluable to the US well beyond Europe. The key point is that a Labour government does not indicate the slightest willingness to continue US access to these facilities if Trump seeks to abandon the US commitment to the defence of mainland Europe.

The UK has no interest in such a divide and rule strategy, and only a Brexit mindset could possibly delude any British leader into thinking otherwise. Fortunately, the last decade has inoculated sensible British politics against delusions in Europe, and a Labour government won’t fall for that one.