Skip to main content

Steve Peers is a dual British and Canadian citizen and professor of law at the University of Essex.

Like Canada, Britain has a very close but nevertheless sometimes controversial relationship with the United States. Despite our differences, though, all three countries support each other in moments of crisis. Until now – in light of Donald Trump's response to the weekend attacks in London.

As you would expect, most world leaders' first thoughts were of sympathy with the U.K., and (in Justin Trudeau's case, for instance) of the safety of their own citizens. In contrast, Mr. Trump's first thoughts were of his own agenda. He started by praising his own proposed travel ban and then moved on to criticizing London's Muslim Mayor, Sadiq Khan. Mr. Trump concluded by linking the tragedy to the debate about gun control in the United States. Then he went golfing. Even on Monday morning, the President continued to insult London's mayor.

All three responses were odd in themselves. Without knowing more about the attacks, it's unknown whether they have any relevance for Mr. Trump's desired ban. Certainly, terrorism in Britain is not wholly based in Islamist extremism: the IRA bombed the city of London (among many other targets) repeatedly, and indeed it bombed London Bridge train station (just yards from Saturday night's attacks) during the morning rush hour one day in 1992. A far right extremist killed a Labour MP last year, and another one bombed targets connected to the black, Asian and gay communities in London in 1999.

Furthermore, Mr. Trump's comments about Mr. Khan are based on a misleading partial quote of what the mayor had said about extra security in London. And Mr. Trump's argument about gun control makes no sense either. As The Atlantic's David Frum has pointed out, if terrorists had greater access to guns, more people would surely be killed in British terrorist attacks. (Britain introduced strict gun controls after a series of massacres, including in a Scottish elementary school).

More broadly, though, Mr. Trump's remarks are tacky and undiplomatic. Imagine if Tony Blair or Jean Chrétien had criticized the mayor of New York the day after 9/11, or if President Obama had used the 2014 attacks in Ottawa to cast aspersions on the RCMP. And they fit into a broader saga of Mr. Trump's unreliability as an ally to America's staunchest friends – ranging from compromising Israeli intelligence assets to failing to commit to the collective defence guarantee in the NATO treaty.

In light of the recent attacks, there are debates to be had in Britain about anti-terrorist policies. Should we have a different integration strategy in general, or as regards Islamist extremism in particular? Have cuts in police numbers, or foreign-policy decisions, contributed to these attacks? Is immigration policy relevant? But these are issues for British people to discuss more calmly in the aftermath of the attacks – not for a foreign leader to tweet about narcissistically in the midst of the emergency response.

Of course, when responding to Mr. Trump, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is in a quandary. Above and beyond the normal diplomatic impulse to bite one's tongue, the U.K. government has placed hope on a future free trade deal with the United States to compensate for a possible drop in trade with the EU after Brexit – and Mr. Trump knows it. Then again, as Canadians and Mexicans could testify, Mr. Trump is likely to prove an unpredictable free trade partner. And as Tony Blair found out, an alliance with an unpopular U.S. president has dire domestic political consequences – the more so given that 44 per cent of British citizens expect Mr. Trump to be an "awful" president.

The special relationship between the U.K. and United States goes back decades, and bonds of family, friendship and commerce will not easily be sundered. But Mr. Trump's response to the London attacks shows that the U.K. would be unwise to rely on it too heavily for now, and that good relations with the rest of world – including the EU after Brexit – are needed as a counterbalance.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said Saturday's London Bridge attack targeted the U.K. but also the free world.