The London Times has an interview with Ben Wallace, Great Britain’s Defense Secretary, that offers a good perspective on American foreign policy under the Trump administration. It is interesting, in particular, to contrast the reporter’s editorializing with what Wallace actually says:
Britain must prepare to fight wars without America, the defence secretary has warned, amid concerns that President Donald Trump will pursue an ever more isolationist foreign policy.
Isolationist? I’m so old I can remember last week, when Trump supposedly was starting World War III. Of course, when it comes to Trump, consistency is strictly optional.
In an interview with The Sunday Times, Ben Wallace admitted that the prospect of America withdrawing from the world “keeps me awake at night”.
He said the government needed to rethink military assumptions, in place since 2010, that the UK would always be fighting alongside the Americans — and should use the upcoming defence review to buy new kit to ensure that the armed forces do not have to rely on US air cover and spy planes in future conflicts.
But what is meant, within the British defense establishment, by America’s “withdrawing from the world”? The answer, I think, is telling:
In the most pointed comments by a minister about the Trump administration, Wallace said: “Over the last year we’ve had the US pullout from Syria, the statement by Donald Trump on Iraq where he said Nato should take over and do more in the Middle East. The assumptions of 2010 that we were always going to be part of a US coalition is really just not where we are going to be.
“We are very dependent on American air cover and American intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets. We need to diversify our assets.”
Here, as we have seen so often, President Trump’s policies align closely with candidate Trump’s promises. He wanted our allies to assume more of the responsibility for, and cost of, their own defense. When you cut through the hand-wringing, that is what Britain is now planning to do:
Wallace says the defence review must give British forces the ability to defend themselves and detect threats that are currently more often the preserve of US spy planes.
“Regardless of what the US does,” he says, Britain, like France and Germany, will remain a target for Islamist terrorists from Isis and al-Qaeda. “It means we are going to have to make decisions that allow us to stand with a range of allies, the Five Eyes [intelligence partnership with America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand] and our European allies where our interests converge.”
He hopes the review will mean post-Brexit Britain is more proactive in advancing its interests using aid and diplomacy as well as the military: “President Putin [of Russia], with an economy half the size of ours, is proactive. The French are proactive in a way we want to be again. I know Boris does.”
The Times interview contains two more interesting nuggets. Secretary Wallace says that the U.S. is serious about not putting the Chinese telecom giant Huawei in a position to intercept U.S. intelligence:
The defence secretary is surprisingly outspoken about how aggressive the Trump administration has been about Huawei, the controversial Chinese telecoms company angling for a role in Britain’s 5G phone network.
Wallace says Trump, his national security adviser and his defence secretary have all threatened to cut off some intelligence to the UK if the National Security Council gives Huawei a green light.
“They have repeatedly said that. They have been clear about that: President Trump, the national security adviser. The defence secretary said it personally to me directly when we met at Nato. It’s not a secret. They have been consistent. Those things will be taken into account when the government collectively decides to make a decision on it.” He adds: “Friends and enemies that are independent make you choose.”
Finally, the British have no problem with Trump’s decision to terminate Soleimani:
[Wallace] backs America on the assassination of the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and says he “did not jump up and down” because the UK was not told about it in advance.
“The intelligence information I have seen, under the right to defend yourself against an imminent threat, that would have been met.”
What we see here is a British perspective on the basic tenets of U.S. foreign policy under President Trump. Trump wants to put America’s interests first, and he wants our allies to bear a reasonable proportion of their own defense costs. In the short term, those priorities cause discomfort with allies like Great Britain. But in the long run, they are perfectly compatible with our historic alliances. And the suggestion that Donald Trump is an isolationist, like the claim that he is itching to start World War III, is ridiculous.
UPDATE: Not long after Ben Wallace gave that interview to the London Times, Britain’s Ambassador to Iran was arrested by the regime and charged with inciting protests at an Iranian university. Demonstrations have broken out across Iran following the government’s admission that Iranian troops shot down a Ukrainian commercial airplane. Which is simply a reminder that Britain has its own foreign policy interests, which it should be prepared to vindicate.