When Donald J Trump is sworn in on 20 January as the 45th President of the United States, the UK needs to make a choice. Trump's unique and unpredictable blend of belligerence and isolationism means the US can no longer be relied on to defend the liberal, rules based international order in place since the end of the Second World War. This could mark the end of an era for UK foreign policy. But at this pivotal moment, Britain is spending all its political capital on Brexit. It has very little time or money for anything else. But that is precisely why now is the time for some tough decisions, to choose what parts of that international order we care enough about to preserve.
Our decision is made harder because the very forces that brought Trump to power convulsed British politics last June. Trump has questioned longstanding alliances and crucial trade agreements, but by voting to leave the EU, so have we. Trump has angered neighbouring states with promises to deport migrants and build a wall, migrants to the UK will soon be in legal limbo and our Prime Minister has pledged to slash migration.
Trump's warm words for President Putin and his comments questioning NATO's mutual defence treaty could fast erode its deterrent force unless Trump makes a clear commitment to NATO allies. NATO has been a cornerstone of our national security for nearly 70 years and, given the quality of our armed forces and the scale of our investment we have a seat at the table. But are we really prepared to fight Russia if Putin does to Estonia what he did to Crimea? Or is our post-EU role in NATO even more important for strengthening European alliances?
In the Middle East, Trump's ideas present Britain with a complex set of hard choices. If he prioritises crushing ISIS at the expense of a Russian rapprochement and keeping Assad in place, the slaughter of Syrian civilians will intensify. Will the UK continue to increase its £2billion commitment to aid refugees or are we approaching the point where we draw down our contribution given the parlous state of our public finances? A regime win in Syria is also a win for Hezbollah and Iran. A curious outcome for Trump to engineer, given his commitment to combat Hezbollah, tighten sanctions on Iran and rip up the nuclear deal. Britain's closest regional allies in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf States will not mourn if the nuclear deal loses its most powerful guarantor, but any positive reaction will be outweighed by victory for Iran in Syria. They must also brace themselves for the impact of hundreds of ISIS fighters fleeing Raqqa and Mosul, battle hardened and devoted to the jihadi cause. Britain then has another choice. Will we stand by the nuclear deal and expand trade with Iran? Or will we grasp the opportunity to deepen relations with our Arab allies who could become cherished assets in a post- EU environment - lucrative partners for expanded trade and a grateful customer for less restrictive arms sales in exchange for enhanced security cooperation against a converging terrorist threat?
In Israel, Trump presents Britain with another dilemma. A close ally of both countries, and a booming UK trade partner worth £6billion. The Republican platform doesn't mention a Palestinian State and refutes the idea that Israel is an occupier, in stark contrast to UK policy for decades. If the US were to stay silent as Israel expanded settlements, would the UK intensify its current position in condemnation? British taxpayers spend more than £100million supporting Palestinian refugees and state building activity in the Palestinian Authority, will that continue if the US decreases its contribution and there is no prospect of a state being built? If President Abbas were to leave the political scene, the UK could play a key role in stabilisation and security, were it minded to do so. Or would it step back with a reluctant US?
None of these intricate policy dilemmas comes close to the potential conflict on fundamental values. Trump fought a campaign underpinned by racism and sexism. His anti-Muslim policies have angered and alarmed British allies. Trump believes 'torture works' and wants to refill Guantanamo with 'bad dudes'. Where does the UK stand? Will we revert to renditions and sacrifice our principles on the altar of our childish obsession with the special relationship? Or will our new life outside of the EU lead to the evolution of a new set of post-human rights values that are in tune with Trump's administration? Above all, the UK needs to make take some tough decisions. A naïve belief that we can use our influence to steer the US President in our direction won't work. We tried that with the last Republican President and we are still repairing the damage.
James Sorene is CEO of Israel and Middle East think tank BICOMSuggest a correction