The UK is looking increasingly isolated in international circles. Some of this is clearly down to Brexit and the pressure it has put on relations with the EU 26 nations. This is not the only reason though. Actions taken by some of its other allies have led to binary choices for the British which have had very obvious downsides.
In the past, they may have been in a position to arbitrate these disputes but currently there are simply not enough resources available or focus to take on this role.
I write this as I read that Donald Trump’s visit to the United Kingdom has been cancelled. The writing was on the wall for this visit for some time. Many groups had rallied around it and used it as a lightning rod to channel their frustrations about the current state of the United Kingdom.
It seems very likely that any kind of visit (there were already previous indications that it would be toned down from a full state visit) would have been met protests. Clearly Trump didn’t fancy that.
However, relations have been strained between Theresa May and Donald Trump before this. When Trump retweeted a Britain First video in November, it was met with serious criticism from the British Government. Trump in turn reacted by tweeting;
"Theresa, don’t focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom. We are doing just fine!"
It will be a challenge to move relations back to where they were under almost every President before Trump over the last thirty years. There have been very few diplomatic crises between the US and the UK in that time. Unfortunately for the UK Brexit and the Trump presidency occurred within seven months.
It is difficult to envisage a return to the previous level of relations while Trump remains as president. The challenge is that he will continue to say/tweet controversial remarks. May will continue to come under severe pressure by her electorate to condemn the most odious and abhorrent of these remarks. Even mild public criticism will irk Trump and probably cause him to lash out publicly. The downward spiral will then continue…
Furthermore, Trump’s foreign policy lacks the nuance of previous administrations. In the Palestinian question, he has practically cast off any semblance of neutrality by recognising Jerusalem as the undisputed, undivided capital of Israel and publicly criticising the Palestinian leadership. May does not have the stomach to seriously oppose this policy and this will not her position or popularity in the Middle East.
Similarly, in the ongoing dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the British government has failed to level any criticism of the new Saudi regime despite obvious human rights abuses in their Yemeni campaign.
Major arms deals from the UK to Saudi Arabia mean there is little scope to work with the Iranian side to mediate this crisis or, at the very least, maintain cordial relations with Iran. Boris Johnson did defend the Iranian Nuclear Agreement this week but it may not be enough after his earlier gaffe in the Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe scandal.
The lack of allies currently in Europe is highly linked to Brexit and it will be difficult to change this in the short to medium term until the Brexit question is (if ever?) resolved. Ironically, if the UK had voted to Remain, I think there would now be a lot of scope to take more of a role as a leader in the EU. It would be able to work with the many eastern countries who have a healthy euro scepticism and it may have been able to get concessions on the overall EU immigration policy.
These countries have recently pushed for closer ties and integration with China. Increased trade with China is a key objective of the British government. Fortunately for the UK, Chinese-British relations have not been damaged by the Trump or Brexit factors. Managing this relationship will be crucial to a post- EU Britain.
On a Eurozone budget, it would not have had a say, but could have still have pushed back on proposed tax harmonisation and worked with the smaller nations who it has had historically strong ties with such as Malta, Cyprus and, more recently, Ireland.
Brexit has also negatively impacted ties with Russia as allegations and accusations of interference in the Brexit referendum have been levelled and rejected while US sanctions have been enforced. Again, increasing ties with Russia makes a lot of sense moving forward in terms of diplomatic clout and trade but the UK may be hamstrung here by US/Russia relations…
In summary, there are many challenges currently facing British diplomats and the UK government. It has been a challenging few years overall for the UK. However, the UK still has a lot of soft power and brand Britain is very strong. I see this almost everywhere I go in the world. A genuine problem currently is the political paralysis of the British Government as it struggles to come to terms with the competing factions in its government as well as major opposition to Brexit.
The UK will only be able to start to mend and build further ties when it has a clearer idea of where it wants to go and regains it sense of purpose. No pragmatic nation wants to build further ties with a rudderless country in a perceived state of political and economic malaise…