Peter Tatchell Malcolm Rifkind

Under Trump, the US can’t be the UK’s closest ally

Ex-Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind debates Peter Tatchell


Britain must reject US hegemony & act independently

Our special relationship with the US is now less justifiable than ever


Prospect Magazine – London, UK – 18 January 2017


The Duel: Should the UK stop pretending Trump’s US can be its best friend?
Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell and ex-Defence and Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind MP battle it out


Peter Tatchell
YesEven if Donald Trump had not been elected, there would be good reasons to rethink the special relationship. The United States is in decline, set to be eclipsed economically by China and militarily checkmated by Russia. So why would Britain wish to hitch its future to a fading world power?

There are also ethical reasons to question our ties with Washington. For much of the post-war era, under both Republican and Democrat presidents, the US has acted like a corporate and military bully. Its multinationals have pillaged the Earth’s peoples and natural resources, laying waste to the environment, rigging world trade in its favour and overthrowing democratic governments that got in its way. In the process, the US has amassed a vastly disproportionate 40 per cent of the world’s entire personal wealth.

With military bases and installations in 70 countries and territories, and having invaded, bombed or interfered in 50 nations since 1945, Washington has exceeded, without direct rule, the reach of the Roman and British empires; often outdoing their violent excesses, as with the indiscriminate mass bombing of Vietnam and Cambodia.

At every low point, from the subversion of democratic governments in Iran in the 1950s and Chile in the 1970s, to the flawed interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ve been told that the US is, overall, a force for good in the world. I never believed it then and don’t believe it now. The many positive aspects of US foreign policy, such as aiding Britain to defeat Nazism and supporting the Kurds in their current fight against Islamic State, are outweighed by the negatives.

Regardless of who is in the White House, it’s time to cease Britain’s subservient, over-dependent and often uncritical relationship with the US. We need an independent foreign and military policy inspired by human rights and global justice principles, based on collaboration with the wider international community for the common good. I doubt this aspiration is compatible with Trump’s.


Malcolm Rifkind

It appears we are agreed on only one thing. The election of Trump will not, and should not, make any difference to Britain’s relationship with the US. That apart, your premises are all incorrect so it is not surprising that your conclusions are as well.

America is not in decline. It is not about to be eclipsed by China. Its income per capita is $56,000. China’s is $14,000. Nor is the US militarily checkmated by Russia. Its defence budget is $600bn. Russia’s is $66bn. If President Barack Obama so wished he could defeat Vladimir Putin in any military confrontation unless you mean a nuclear one in which no one would win.

One doesn’t have to defend every aspect of post-war US foreign policy to know that without its leadership the Free World would not have defeated Soviet totalitarianism in the Cold War, and you and I would not be enjoying the freedom to have this civilised exchange of views.

Nor has our relationship with the US been subservient, as you allege, except under Tony Blair. Harold Wilson refused to send British troops to Vietnam; Margaret Thatcher lambasted Reagan over the invasion of Grenada; John Major rejected air bombing by the US during the Bosnian conflict.

Britain’s relationship with the US is not based on nostalgia. It is because we have shared values on democracy; because we are prepared to use military force to defeat terrorism and aggression; and because for 70 years we have enjoyed intelligence and security co-operation which has enabled you and I to sleep more soundly in our beds.

Thatcher concluded that she was able “to do business” with Mikhail Gorbachev. While no enthusiast for Trump, I have no reason to reach any different conclusion as regards London’s relationship with Washington over the next four years.


Peter Tatchell

Although there have been instances when the UK has defied Washington, these are exceptions not the rule. What’s more, the virtues of the special relationship are overstated. A commitment to democratic values is also shared by our European neighbours. It is not unique to the US and UK.

I believe Britain should work with the EU and wider Europe to forge a progressive counter-weight to US hegemony. The collective economic and political strength of Europe can match that of Washington. Together, we have the power to chart a more enlightened future than the dominant Pax Americana since 1945. Our collaboration with the rest of Europe is ever more important, given the far-right Trump presidency.

Unlike the UK on its own, Europe has the economic clout to reform free-market capitalism in favour of a more just, accountable and people-centred economy. It could implement the public finance bonanza of a Robin Hood tax and bear down on the tax havens and tax avoidance schemes that are robbing our countries of trillions in revenue; which could help fund the NHS, social care, affordable housing, renewable energy and free childcare and tertiary education. Europe has the muscle to take on the big corporations; insisting on economic democracy, with employee and consumer representatives on company boards, and mandatory bonuses for employees who devise ways to improve services and cut costs. None of these initiatives to ensure fair shares and improved productivity and industrial relations would be agree-able to Washington and its corporate elite.

Maintaining our junior partner relationship with the US and, in particular, going for Brexit, will leave us isolated, weaker and more vulnerable; forced to rely on a US led by a dangerous demagogue. United with Europe we are better placed to stand up to the US, in our interests and the interests of the wider world.


Malcolm Rifkind

Yet again you reveal your prejudices as early as your first sentence. You concede that most prime ministers have “defied Washington” over the years but you complain that these were “exceptions and not the rule.” Why should “defiance” have been “the rule”? You appear to believe that Britain, over the years, had as little in common with the US as with the USSR.

Your remedy for this alleged misalliance is that we should now work with the European Union to forge “a progressive counter-weight to US hegemony.” Which leaders do you have in mind? Marine Le Pen or the anti-gay François Fillon, one of whom will be the next French President? The Christian Democrat Angela Merkel or Viktor Orbán, the nationalist leader of Hungary? Or the xenophobic, governing Law and Justice Party of Poland?

Which of Europe’s current leaders meet your leftist, socially “progressive” criteria? I agree with you that leaving the EU was a sad decision but as it was the democratic verdict of the British people I assume that, as a good democrat, you accept it. Or am I mistaken?

You try to make the point that we are only the “junior partner” of the Americans. Who ever suggested otherwise? The US is not a superpower but a super-duper power!

Our close and fundamental relationship has not depended on the personality or perceived competence of successive presidents but on a hundred years of joint endeavour and common aspirations. Every British government, since 1945, including “progressive” Labour administrations has taken that view. Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin would agree with me, even if you don’t.


Peter Tatchell

Even if Britain leaves the EU, we can still co-operate with other European nations, as a counter-weight to the US. This looks a hard ask right now. The rise of the European far right is a consequence of decades of failure by conservatives, liberals and the left to reform the EU and create a progressive alternative to US dominance, with practical policies that benefit ordinary people. But, as I have proven by helping take LGBT rights from the margin to the mainstream, what seems impossible can be made possible with vision and determination.

The big challenge is to forge a pan-European alliance of parties to push for a new progressive Europe that has popular appeal and avoids the failings of the US. Although I disagree with the Brexit vote, I accept it on democratic grounds, with the proviso that there should be a second referendum on the terms of our leaving. Even if Brexit is confirmed, Britain can still voluntarily co-operate with the EU (and non-EU countries) on issues that will be good for us.

In the meantime, we face the reality of a Trump presidency. He’s not a legitimate president, given that he lost the popular vote. But he is the president under the anti-democratic electoral college system (which I have criticised for decades). He has threatened to tear up the Iran deal, go soft on Putin’s tyranny and annexations, curb action against climate destruction and restart CIA torture programmes.

These are policies that would make the world less safe, stable and sustainable, and are likely to fuel conflict, autocracy, conquest and Islamist extremism. They reinforce the need for Britain to assert a foreign and military policy more independent of the US—wherever possible in collaboration with Europe because united we are stronger and more effective.


Malcolm Rifkind

I am glad that we are agreed that achieving a “progressive” Europe, given the rise of the far right and Euroscepticism, is not on the cards now or in the near future. But you are still allowing your prejudices to overcome your judgement. You argue that despite the current problems we should campaign for a “pan-European alliance” to push for a new Europe.

But if “what seems impossible can be made possible with vision and determination” why should this not also include our relationship with the US? Why do you always maintain that they are beyond the pale? Whatever you think of Trump, you are aware that Clinton won over two million more votes than Trump. So the American people cannot be dismissed as incurably reactionary and extreme. Where is your “vision” when it comes to our transatlantic brethren!

I am relieved you accept that the Brexit vote must be respected. I agree that when we leave the EU we must closely co-operate with our European neighbours. That, however, brings us back to your paranoia about the US and your determination to see them as enemies, not natural friends. Yes, Trump has threatened to tear up the Iran deal, go soft on Putin and restart CIA torture programmes. We do not yet know whether he is any more serious on these than getting the Mexicans to pay for a wall or prosecuting Clinton. Far from shunning the White House, Britain has a better chance than any other country of getting him to drop these foolish ideas.

Churchill once said that you can always rely on the Americans to do the right thing once they’ve tried every other option. At the recent election they, sadly, decided to try one of the other options. Our opportunity and duty is to do all in our power, as a candid friend, to win the new president over. To use your own words “with vision and determination we can.”