Tomorrow is the day it could all go wrong for Boris Johnson. It is bad enough opinion polls have him on course to win a handsome majority when Britain votes in 11 days’ time: that alone is enough to make me want to bet on a hung parliament. Worse, President Donald Trump is due to arrive in London within 24 hours.
To say that Trump is unpopular in the UK would be an understatement. Earlier this year, a YouGov poll showed that two-thirds of Britons had a negative opinion of Trump, compared with just 11% who felt that way about his predecessor, Barack Obama.
A month ago, YouGov asked 3,729 British adults: “Do you think getting President Trump’s endorsement is helpful or unhelpful for British politicians?” One in 10 thought it would be “fairly helpful” or “very helpful”; 15% said “fairly unhelpful” and 39% “very unhelpful”.
The last time Trump referred to the prime minister was on Nigel Farage’s LBC radio show on Halloween, when he called him a “fantastic man”, adding that the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, would take the country “into such bad places” if he emerged as prime minister. Trump went on to say that “under certain aspects” of Johnson’s Brexit deal, “we can’t make a trade deal with the UK”.
As Corbyn licks the wounds inflicted on him last week by Andrew Neil — whose style of interrogation makes a half-time “hairdryer” bollocking by Sir Alex Ferguson seem humane — the Labour leader can only hope Trump delivers more of the same tomorrow. In Corbyn’s dreams, Trump not only endorses Johnson but also proposes the privatisation of the NHS as part of a US-UK (pronounced “You suck”) trade agreement.
Trump’s reason for being in London is not to salvage Corbyn’s campaign, but to attend a Nato meeting. Now, if Trump is unpopular in Britain, he is positively detested on the Continent. The overwhelming majority of Germans had confidence in Obama; just 10% feel that way about Trump, according to Pew Research. His numbers are even worse in France and Spain.
“Whose side should your country take in a dispute between the United States and Russia?” asked the European Council on Foreign Relations in a poll published in September. In every Nato member surveyed, with the sole exception of Poland, the majority — ranging from 53% of Danes to 81% of Greeks — favoured neutrality.
Since running for president, Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on the future of the Atlantic alliance. Last week, as if to fuel the fire, CNN ran the headline: “Trump administration to cut its financial contribution to Nato.” This was, as Trump would say, fake news. In reality, a deal had been reached between Nato members to reduce America’s contribution to Nato’s small ($2.5bn, or £1.9bn) central budget and to increase the contribution of the Europeans, especially Germany.
This is a sop to Trump, whose reason for resenting Nato is the decades-old and entirely justified American complaint that the Europeans don’t pay their fair share of the cost of defending their own continent. Fact: despite repeated US protests, only six European Nato members (among them the UK) spend more than 2% of GDP on defence, while America spends just over 3.4%.
Last month, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, gave an interview to The Economist in which he referred to “the brain death of Nato”. Asked for his view of article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which binds members to regard an attack on any member as an attack on all members, Macron replied: “I don’t know, but what will article 5 mean tomorrow? Will [Trump] be prepared to activate solidarity? If something happens at our borders?”
If this question does not get answered one way or another in 2020, it seems very likely to be answered within the next four years should Trump be re-elected president on November 3 next year.
Second terms are rarely triumphant. After Ronald Reagan won re-election, a senior adviser told The New York Times that his 1984 state of the union address was the road map for his second-term policy agenda. “What you’ve seen is pretty much what you’ll see,” the adviser said. Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Obama all followed the Reagan playbook. Most had relatively unsuccessful second terms, achieving little domestically and focusing on foreign policy.
Clinton intervened in Kosovo, enlarged Nato and tried to broker peace in the Middle East; Bush ordered the troop surge in Iraq; Obama negotiated the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement.
Trump might seek new measures of fiscal stimulus if the US economy slows further or tips into recession. However, if the Democrats retain control of the House of Representatives, as seems likely, it is hard to see how much common ground could be found, especially with memories of a failed impeachment still fresh. Healthcare and immigration reform seem remote prospects.
The incentives would therefore be, as usual, for the president to focus on foreign policy. That is a thought to freeze the blood, for this — as former national security adviser John Bolton recently warned — would be “America first” unbound.
For most of his first term, Trump has been held in check by men with national security experience. Bolton was one; the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, is another. The other erstwhile “adults in the room”, Jim Mattis and HR McMaster, are now my colleagues at the Hoover Institution.
If re-elected, Trump would give free rein to his isolationist instincts and — perhaps just as dangerous — his tendency to mix his own private interests with US national security. If you were shocked by Trump’s pressure on the Ukrainian president to dig for dirt on Joe Biden, or if you share Bolton’s suspicion that Trump’s lenient treatment of his Turkish counterpart is connected to the Trump Organisation’s interests in Istanbul, then brace yourself for more and worse.
The leaders of Russia, Turkey and North Korea would certainly rejoice at a Trump victory. Only China and perhaps Iran might have cause to worry, as the president’s animosity towards those countries seems unlikely to diminish in a second term.
To appreciate just why all this should worry Europeans, I recommend you revisit the interview between Vladimir Putin and the Financial Times in June. Asked which world leader he most admired, Putin gave the startling reply: “Peter the Great.”
Among the territories Peter added to the Russian empire during his reign (1682-1725) as a result of victories over Poland and Sweden were Kiev (the Ukrainian capital), Ingria (the area around St Petersburg), Livonia (the northern half of modern Latvia and the southern half of modern Estonia), Estonia (the rest of modern Estonia) and a chunk of Karelia (sometimes called “Old Finland”).
As I write, Trump is preparing to fly eastwards, filling Boris with trepidation. But it is the westward moves of Putin we really need to worry about.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford.