Comparing Donald Trump to Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, Great Britain’s prime minister between 1859 and 1865 and the greatest example of Victorian imperialism, can be an interesting political tightrope walk from a historical point of view and more so to psychiatrists than to the general public. But such is the similarity found by Matthias Matthijs, a professor of political economy at the School of Advanced International Relations at Johns Hopkins University.
"Trump definitely following Lord Palmerston's dictum, ‘America First’ implies that the US no longer has permanent friends, only permanent interests," Matthijs tweeted when they ask him about Washington's position on the European Union and Great Britain after Brexit. This is something that Brexit supporters have only clearly understood this week. The promised free trade agreement that the U.S. and the U.K. were going to sign almost automatically following the U.K.’s exit from the EU has fallen through. But Trump's statements shouldn't surprise anyone. Last week, during a visit to Washington, David Davis, former Brexit secretary and supporter of the "hard" exit, made it clear that, with the current exit agreement, it is impossible to sign a free trade agreement with the United States.
Therefore, Trump only articulated what everybody already knew. The only difference is that he is the U.S. president, and so his words have a greater impact.
But Trump is like Palmerston only up to a certain degree. The president may say that the U.S. doesn't have or need any friends. However, he, as a person, does personalize relations with other leaders. And this is a different matter. Every relationship Trump has with anyone inside or outside the U.S. who doesn’t agree to everything he wants tends to end badly. No head of government can do that, and even less so in a democracy. This explains not only why the relationship between Trump and Emmanuel Macron has deteriorated so much since their 2017 honeymoon, but also the fact that the rapport with Theresa May is now much worse than it was when Trump got to the White House 22 months ago.
And that is something which may render Great Britain irrelevant. The only thing that May can offer the U.S. are air and naval bases, highlighted by Gibraltar. Washington, facing a Conservative government in London, already takes this for granted. Even the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn would be resistant to play the air and naval base card since that's the only thing the U.K has left that could make the U.S. acknowledge the U.K.’s strategic importance.
The other big difference is the fact that Palmerston had a strategy. Trump doesn't. In addition, there is the Democrats' election triumph in the House of Representatives, which further complicates Trump’s political position regarding Europe. For Trump, the EU is a German invention intended to keep its currency artificially low – the euro is cheaper than the German mark would currently be – and export more. And at the same time, Trump thinks of the EU as a straitjacket on American industry with its gas emission policy aimed at stopping climate change.
But now, with the Democrats in control of the House, Trump is going to have a harder time maintaining his approach, which Matthijs defines as "mercantile." "Democrats are more likely to maintain alliances with other countries than Republicans," explained Tyson Barker, a program director at the Aspen Institute in Germany. This means that the president's indifference – if not open hostility – toward NATO is going to meet resistance in Washington. In short, Trump will continue to echo Palmerston's rhetoric, ignoring Europe and increasingly doing the same to Great Britain. But Trump’s lack of any strategy is compounded by the turmoil from an increasingly divided Europe and the opposition’s return to power in Washington after two years.