Picture Credit: John Keeble/Getty Images

We’re all living in America

Britain’s elite is obsessed with Trump and the States, when it needs to concentrate on the Home Front

Artillery Row

The United Kingdom is not the United States. It is a different country, with a different economy, demographics and geography. This fact needs restating, because Britain eagerly consumes American things to the point of distortion. So much of British political discussion fixates on America. Either it does so implicitly, by importing American political language (“Build Back Better! Mid-terms!”) into our own, complete with rallying cries and iconography, carrying on as though Britain is the republic in miniature. Or it does so explicitly, endlessly speculating on the course of American politics, especially in the year of a presidential election. 

Given this painful reality, it’s past time to devote more energy to other things

Even after the upcoming election, there will be further rounds of obsession over the choreographic details. You can already imagine the headlines. Who did the president-elect telephone first? What does it say about the “special relationship”? Whither NATO? Even our nostalgia has an American accent. If things in Washington turn dark, our overclass eagerly watches re-runs of The West Wing.

Excessive worry about whether or not the corrupt demagogue Donald Trump will win in November is not just natural anxiety about who will rule the superpower and Britain’s senior ally. Too often, it is a form of deflection. Time spent doing one thing is time denied to other things. Britain’s defence and foreign policy commentariat, along with retired spies and officers, allocate scarce hours of their day to issuing dire warnings about the consequences for the world if Trump wins in November, along with the MAGA-hatted provincialism he supposedly embodies. But even if they’re right, so what? What useful end is all this catastrophism serving? After all, there’s not much even the most well-placed Brits can do about it. 

We know that, because we’ve been here before. In 2016, British officeholders, parliamentarians, centrist newspapers and celebrities lined up with their international counterparts not only to debate whether to ban Trump from visiting, but to weigh in to American politics with denunciations. And yet. Further back, a similar disappointment befell the Guardian in 2004, when it orchestrated a letter-writing campaign to get Ohio voters to desert President George W. Bush, in Operation Clark County. Never mind. No matter how much we repeat self-regarding reminders that he’s “our president” too, Americans elect who they want. It’s a sovereign nation. They pay the taxes, not us. They decide. That issue was settled in 1783. 

Given this painful reality, it’s past time to devote more energy to other things. Specifically, less titillating things closer to home, things Britain has some chance of influencing. Like British policy — foreign, defence, industrial, fiscal, environmental — and how to weave it together. The prime focus of this task should not be preparing for the contingency of Trump 2.0. It should be based on a recognition that whoever wins in November, NATO Europe must prepare to take the lead in its own neighbourhood. 

Trump is not primarily an agent of disruption. He is its most famous symptom. The crisis of the republic predated Trump’s political ascent — from the disaster of the Bush Doctrine to the Global Financial Crisis — and will live on even if President Joe Biden routs him. I write this from San Francisco, a city where the police have seemingly given up, where shops must lock up goods on display, where mental breakdown and social ruin gets worse and worse, and where coming in from the airport, the smell of marijuana literally overpowered the traffic fumes. An extreme case, perhaps. But a pattern is obvious: America’s urban misery worsens while its international power position is strained. This doesn’t mean America will stop being a great power, or even stop being the strongest one. It does mean that the status quo is proving unsustainable. Commitments exceed power, as a wise foreign policy mind once put it.

Too many hope that Trump, and the wider forces he embodies, will go away

The brute likelihood is that the hegemon which once picked up most of the tab and did much of the heavy lifting will find it must prioritise, whether it wants to or not. The growing risk, at least, demands attention. And yes, while the proportion of U.S. defence spending as a percentage of GDP is lower than the Eisenhower era, it is now funded by borrowing, and there are far greater domestic demands on its fiscal firepower. And even if that’s wrong, there simply isn’t the political will to support a significant increase in defence spending or commitments. 

If not now, in the medium term, after a hard domestic fight, something will have to give. That thing is likely to be de facto heavy subsidies to relatively wealthy transatlantic allies. As things stand already, Washington has its hands full and its bandwidth overloaded, with crises from the southern border to Ukraine to the Taiwan strait to Gaza, not to mention frequent domestic deadlock.

But there I go too, gazing in on American politics rather than the predicament over here. There is something hypnotically fascinating about American power struggle, its scale and energy, its melodrama. So much more stimulating, say, than debating the policies in the event of a U.S. drawdown, from property taxes or the defence exports out of Europe, or the defence industrial base, or the demise of nuclear or water infrastructure, or a European nuclear posture, to the division of labour among our region’s leading military states. These are hard questions, involving real tradeoffs and sacrifices. And given the showbiz quality of both Trump and anti-Trumpism, it is all the more distracting. Far more gratifying to burn Trump in effigy.

Yet we must resist the distraction more strongly. Britain’s cabinet ministers, we now learn, decided that they had better things to do than take part in a recent bunker evacuation test. How typical of our governance today: to speak regularly of a “pre-war” state, or a crisis of multiple adversaries and fronts, to warn civilians to prepare for an age of conflict, yet behave themselves as though it’s still the 1990s. Former Secretary of Defence Ben Wallace, who championed the bunker exercise, noted that too many people in government rely on hoping the current instability will go away. He’s dead right. Too many hope that Trump, and the wider forces he embodies, will go away. Win or lose elections, people still die. Deep crises are more resilient.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover