LONDON — As Britain readies to leave the world’s largest trading bloc and step out onto the global battlefield, it faces one major problem: U.S. President Donald Trump has changed the rules of engagement. Where previous U.S. leaders tended to keep talks about economic policy and national security separate — at least between allies — Trump is unapologetic about making one conditional on the other. The commander in chief refuses to trade with those who do business with his enemies; threatens his friends with tariffs if they fail to sign up to his foreign policy objectives; and invokes arguably spurious security complaints to trigger trade wars with fellow Western states.
“It’s the bully-boy style,” said Barry Gardiner, the British Labour Party’s shadow international trade secretary. Trump, he said, is telling allies: “We can either be nice or we can be nasty to you. And if you want us to be nice, this is what you have got to give us.” That puts U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has placed the U.S. at the top of his trade deal wish list, in a difficult position as he tries to chart a new course for the country as an independent trading partner after Brexit.
As tensions between Tehran and Washington escalated following Washington’s decision to leave the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, Trump took to Twitter to pile pressure on European countries: “Anyone doing business with Iran will NOT be doing business with the United States,” he wrote. Less than a year later he ended sanctions waivers for a handful of countries, including Japan and South Korea, because they continued to buy oil from Iran.
The overt pressure campaign took many by surprise. “I don’t recall a recent example of that in the post-Cold War period,” said Professor Malcolm Chalmers, the deputy director general of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). It has since become a seemingly inescapable part of the U.S. president’s foreign policy strategy.
Earlier this month, Trump issued a fresh threat to slap tariffs on European cars if Germany, France and the U.K. refused to trigger a dispute resolution mechanism under the Iran nuclear accord. The British government insisted the decision to trigger the mechanism was taken independently of any threats — but did not deny Trump had made the gambit. Meanwhile, Richard Goldberg, a Trump ally and former White House aide, took to the airwaves in Britain to warn Johnson that refusing to back the U.S. president on Iran could scupper his hopes of striking a transatlantic free-trade deal after Brexit.
“It’s absolutely in [Johnson’s] interests and the people of Great Britain’s interests to join with President Trump, with the United States, to realign your foreign policy away from Brussels, and to join the maximum pressure campaign to keep all of us safe,” Goldberg, an ex-member of the White House National Security Council, told the BBC. “There is a great clarity now that you can choose who you trade with at your peril,” said a British defense industry boss. “I’m sure it’s always been there as an undercurrent, but I think it is simply becoming more and more overt.” Besides using trade as a battering ram to push his national security objectives, Trump has also invoked national security concerns to pursue his trade objectives.
With Brexit, Britain is tossing itself out to sea during a major storm. Its first order of business as it navigates the new landscape, and the new rules of the power game between big nations, will be to dodge the Trump gunboats.
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