Former MI6 Chief: Trump could make Britain safer

And we may have "a more influential role at the top table"

November 21, 2016
President-Elect Donald Trump, joined on stage by running mate Mike Pence, speaks to supporters at the Election Night Party at the Hilton Midtown Hotel in New York City, NY, USA, on Wednesday, November 9, 2016. ©Van Tine Dennis/ABACA/ABACA USA/PA Images
President-Elect Donald Trump, joined on stage by running mate Mike Pence, speaks to supporters at the Election Night Party at the Hilton Midtown Hotel in New York City, NY, USA, on Wednesday, November 9, 2016. ©Van Tine Dennis/ABACA/ABACA USA/PA Images
Read more: Will Trump's security proposals be resisted? Look at the history

If President-Elect Donald Trump is really the belligerent isolationist of his campaign rhetoric, then the United Kingdom’s national security is in a very difficult and potentially dangerous place. The two pillars on which our national safety rests are membership of the Nato alliance and a close partnership with the US which covers the full range of our defence, intelligence and security capabilities. Trump has been disparaging about Nato and until his foreign policy and national security teams are appointed we do not know what importance he will give to the “Special Relationship.”

That relationship is looking tarnished. Barack Obama’s comments about Brexit Britain going to the back of the US’s trade negotiation queue, even if they were prompted by Cameron or Osborne, were hardly the considered words of someone who believed in the relationship come what may.

There is no going back now, whatever the gainsayers may think. We are therefore entering a period of great uncertainty and profound change—but once the noxious atmosphere of the presidential campaign is dispersed and most of the uncertainties diminished through indications of new policies and appointments to the next administration, Trump may actually turn out to be good for the United Kingdom’s safety.

Trump’s primary populist agenda will be largely domestic, with the notable exception of trade with China. But I have it on good authority that, on his broader approach to foreign policy and national security, he wants and needs a close friend. Only two countries at the moment could possibly qualify for that role: the United Kingdom and Australia. Geography, together with the longstanding history of security co-operation, will comfortably allow both to be his best friends without much overlap.

So expect to see Churchill’s bust back in the Oval Office, Brexit Britain at the front of that trade negotiating queue and an increase in the number of cypher phones linking the staff of both nations’ National Security Councils. Forget the pivot to Asia and welcome back the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt, as Trump opts for higher defence spending.

As for Nato, full payment of 2 per cent of GDP spent on defence by all its members is long overdue and is especially needed now in the face of a resurgent Russia. A dialogue with Russia from a position of strength could significantly improve European security by delivering at least some sort of acceptable understanding over Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

It could also deliver a concerted Russian-American onslaught on Isis and al Qaida if we recognise that Assad and the Alawites have nowhere to go except into a coastal Syrian canton. Russia and the US working together might even force Iran into real compliance and cooperation with the international community. China’s regional expansion will also be more contested and the US Navy allowed to assert itself in the Pacific and South China Sea in the way that it has wanted over the last few years. India will become a more active US ally and pulled more tightly into the US fold.

But I do worry about how the Trump administration would implement such a challenging agenda. Without access to that legendary Republican foreign and national security expertise, it could all go dreadfully wrong. The Russians play chess and the Chinese are very patient when it comes to getting their way; experience in dealing with both is an essential qualification especially if the US is in the business of rebooting these relationships.

Trump’s first appointments, understandably, are of ideological allies and one of them, General Mike Flynn, was loyal throughout the campaign. Flynn, the new National Security Adviser, is a hardline, courageous field commander who served with distinction in Afghanistan, but who ran foul of the present administration and was sacked as Head of the Defence Intelligence Agency for equating international terrorism with Islam—Obama has always been careful never to mention terrorism and Islam in the same breadth. He has little experience of making and implementing policy and has been very outspoken out of government. He is therefore an unknown quantity, but then plenty of his predecessors have been less experienced.

Congressman Mike Pompeo, the new Director of CIA, is a prominent Tea Party Republican with an impressive CV. He graduated top of his class at West Point and was at Harvard Law School. He has made a significant impact as a member of the House Intelligence Committee and strongly opposes the nuclear accord with Iran. He has a reputation for being politically angular, but General Mike Hayden, the former NSA and CIA Director, and probably now the wisest of national security commentators has endorsed his appointment. That I find encouraging.

However, an important test of Trump’s leadership will be how he leavens this very hardline duo with mainline Republican expertise. He could do this by appointing Mitt Romney, or another prominent Republican from outside the Trump camp, to the post of Secretary of State. The other crucial appointment will be Secretary of State for Defence, which will provide a further opportunity for Trump to further close the rift with the mainstream Republican Party.

My advice would be to ignore the extreme predictions and comparisons about Trump. He is not reminiscent of the rise of fascism, nor is Russia in any condition at the moment to push its destabilising interventions much beyond the Syrian vacuum and what it has already done in Ukraine and Georgia. There is a rational route for Trump-Elect to take into the wider world and it may well turn out that his policies contribute to creating a world that is actually safer and less volatile than we have now.

For the UK there is the prospect, however unlikely it may have seemed during the Brexit and Presidential campaigns, of a more influential role at the top table. It is important that we get over the shock of Trump’s election victory and start thinking calmly about the consequences, particularly those that touch our vital national interests.