Although curtly denied by the US State Department, multiple reports have emerged stating that the US Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, former Republican Senator Sam Brownback voiced his concerns regarding Britain’s treatment of prisoner Tommy Robinson during a meeting with the UK Ambassador to Washington, just weeks prior to Donald Trump’s visit to England and Scotland.
According to the reports, Brownback told Sir Kim Darroch that the US could publicly reprimand the British government if Robinson was not treated “sympathetically” while serving a 13 month prison sentence for violating a court order regarding his making of video reportage from outside a court house where an alleged paedophile gang was on trial.
If true, Brownback’s intervention has major implications both for the state of Washington’s relations with its weaker allies as well as for the overall optics of the always controversial Robinson case. Traditionally, the US State Department uses its reports on global religious freedom as a means of chastising states with whom the US has disputes ranging from economic disputes to wider proto-military disputes. The unevenness of the US State Department’s use of the religious freedom card in its diplomatic dealings is best encapsulated by the fact that secular states like China and the DPRK are more robustly criticised than an absolutist theocracy like Saudi Arabia.
However, in threatening to publicly criticise a close European ally under the guise of having a poor record on religious freedom, the US in the Trump administration era has proved yet again that the geopolitical and geo-economic tools normally only ever used against rivals or outright adversaries are now set to be used against traditional allies with ever more frequency.
When the Trump administration threatened to sanction the European Union’s major nation-states including Germany and France over their desire to maintain trade with Iran in the format of the JCPOA (aka Iran nuclear deal), it was nothing short of a watershed moment wherein the disputes the US once privately held with its European partners are now not only being aired in public but are being backed up by strong punitive measures.
The Trump administration’s willingness to enact tariffs on the European Union (as well as its Canadian and Mexican partners), its open criticism of Europe’s alleged abuse of the NATO alliance and Trump’s overall attitude of open condescension towards leaders from states that are nominally still Washington’s closest allies is symptomatic of the fact that the strongman tactics which the US has used against weaker Asian, African and Latin American nations for over a century, are now increasingly being applied to traditional European and North American allies.
In this sense, while previous US leaders may well have been astonished at the apparent overly harsh sentence handed to Robinson for making a video report outside a court, something that would rarely if ever be a criminal issue in the United States – it would not likely have risen to the level of the apparent public threat to ‘name and shame’ the UK government on the world’s stage in the way that the US often ‘names and shames’ rival powers in the wider global east and south.
Then there is the issue of the Trump administration using the Robinson matter for domestic consumption. Typically, events in the US often influence European political discourse because of the omnipresence of stories from the United States on European news outlets. Rarely however do domestic events in Europe, including elections, become talking points in America. However, during his 2016 election campaign, Donald Trump openly embraced the cause of Brexit (Britain’s vote to withdraw from the European Union) and furthermore, Trump event shared a campaign platform in the US with Brexit’s most vocal supporter Nigel Farage.
At present, many if not most of Trump’s most vocal supporters in America broadcast radio media, web based media and to a degree on the pro-Trump Fox News network have come out in support of Tommy Robinson, voicing their opinion that his jailing is an overly harsh politicised action that will have a stifling effect on British free speech.
As Trump has openly courted media figures shunned by previous Republican leaders including talk show hosts Michael Savage and Alex Jones – two of America’s biggest Tommy Robinson supporters, it could also be the case that the story was intentionally leaked in order to show that when Trump went to Britain, a country whose present government is seen as objectionable by many American Trump voters, that he would go in with his customary offering of opinions rather than a more subtle diplomatic style.
After vocally chastising the UK government’s approach to Brexit in an interview with a UK tabloid while Tweeting about Britain’s political instability prior to his visit, one could clearly infer that reports regarding Trump’s sympathy with Tommy Robinson are in fact ‘real news’ as such things remain consistent with Trump’s approach to Britain and Europe more widely both at a diplomatic level and in terms of how he discusses European issues before his own electorate.
Taken as a whole, European nations are learning a lesson they never thought they would have to learn: their domestic actions are now subject to the same kinds of open US scrutiny and criticism as those which take place in Asia, Africa and Latin America.