In the aftermath of a terror attack, it is usual for global leaders to offer statements of solidarity with the nation desperately trying to deal with what has happened.
What is not normal are personal and highly public jabs at the government officials tasked directly with responding to the attack. Thus the world gasped when Donald Trump misinterpreted – deliberately or otherwise – London mayor Sadiq Khan’s dignified call for Londoners not to be alarmed by extra police, and hurled insults at him on Twitter. Trump’s assault on Khan – who is not only a Muslim but also rather popular in the capital – is the latest example of his disinterest in diplomatic norms. But its sheer insensitivity in the wake of such a brutal incident has sparked a vocal backlash in the UK, with renewed calls for his state visit to be cancelled.
At the height of a general election campaign, UK politicians are also tripping over themselves to signal their outrage. And, after two days of equivocating, Theresa May finally joined the fray yesterday, saying Trump was “wrong” to criticise Khan.
The Prime Minister is walking a delicate line. The election is tomorrow and those photos of Trump clutching her arm have not faded from public memory. But Britain must not push America away – however embarrassing its current leader. May is not in a position to burn her side of the bridge, even if Trump is pouring gasoline on his. The US-UK “special relationship” is a cliche because it is true, a relationship that has endured countless leaders of different political persuasions, united by a shared culture, history and philosophy. From trade to counter-terrorism, Britain needs the US if it wants to play on the world stage.
Luckily, the US needs us too, and aside from Trump, its representatives seem aware of that. May was a huge hit when she addressed Congressional Republicans in January, the epitome of British dignity and statesmanship. And other Americans are now filling the diplomacy void left by the President – the US Conference of Mayors, which includes Democrats and Republicans alike, issued a statement of support for Khan’s leadership on Tuesday. The special relationship is just one more thing – like Nato, the Republican party, and the institutions of US government – that will be around long after Donald Trump has left office.