President-elect Donald Trump should consider the fate of British prime minister Theresa May if he seriously contemplates a steady withdrawal of the United States from the international system. London’s continuing struggles with the aftermath of the Brexit vote is, on a small scale, a reminder of the difficulties of reversing an existing state of globalisation and the often unexpected costs of such a decision. Ms May, to her credit, did not support the decision to withdraw from the European Union. Less impressive, however, is her insistence that as prime minister she will implement the referendum’s verdict and, it seems, do so through confrontational negotiations.
Ms May has repeatedly visited European capitals to try and make the case for a new Anglo-European understanding that allows the free flow of trade and investment across the English Channel but places barriers to the free movement of people. Rightly, the EU has scoffed at this arrangement as it would violate some of their basic principles. More to the point, it would only feed and encourage similar anti-immigrant political sentiments in other European countries. She has gotten little for her travels. An irritated Barack Obama told her that if Britain wanted to negotiate a new trade agreement with the United States, it would have to go to the “back of the queue”. A Narendra Modi government had even less to offer, given its general antipathy to any trade agreement at all and generally protectionist attitude to international economics. The only concession New Delhi was interested in paralleled the interests of the EU — a more liberal immigration policy. Presumably by accident, the British government announced further restrictions on Indian visas just before she arrived. Her India visit left no impression with the Modi government other than the sense of a once great power that had lost any shred of strategic thinking, economic or political.
It would be nice to think a President Trump would draw a lesson from the limbo that now envelopes British foreign and economic policy. A US trade war with China or a labour war with Mexico would, by all accounts, would result in global economic chaos. It would bring none of the jobs that were lost to these countries earlier back to the US — high wages, robots and technology mean these jobs are gone forever. Economic realities change so rapidly that it is impossible to simply turn the clock back. A new economic strategy is needed for the US to help its sagging working-class population. And real political leadership is needed to bridge the deep rifts that afflict the national parties of both the US and the UK over issues like migration. So far, neither Trump nor May has come up with any ideas on resolving either problem.