David Lammy: Obama's friend who may soon share the world stage with Trump

Few British politicians have as deep American ties as those of David Lammy, who is set to become Britain's foreign secretary if the opposition Labor Party wins the next election, as polls suggest.

The son of Guyanese immigrants who grew up poor in working-class London, he spent summers with relatives in Brooklyn and Queens, working at Con Edison, before earning a master's degree at Harvard Law School and befriending Barack Obama, for whom he worked at Chicago. during his first presidential campaign.

Yet now, on the verge of becoming Britain's chief diplomat, Lammy finds himself facing an uncertain, even potentially hostile, American political landscape. President Biden and Democrats, with whom Lammy has cultivated a deep network of contacts, are struggling to keep a resurgent Donald J. Trump at bay.

Having been chosen by Labor leader Keir Starmer partly for his transatlantic credentials, Lammy, 51, is struggling to build ties with republicans and, more challenging, those around Trump. It is a very different American system from the democratic one he knows so well.

Would Lammy visit Mar-a-Lago, Trump's Palm Beach estate, as David Cameron, the current British foreign secretary, did two weeks ago to pressure the former president over military aid to Ukraine?

“Of course,” he said in an interview this week at Portcullis House, the parliamentary office building opposite Big Ben. Noting that he would soon be traveling to New York and Washington, he said, “I'm happy to talk to whoever the American people decide they want to run the country.”

This is a tried-and-tested response for any foreign politician during an American election year, especially one from a party that has maintained a double-digit lead in polls over the ruling conservatives for 18 months. But unlike many Europeans, who view Trump with a mixture of fear and bemusement, Lammy seems to genuinely believe he can find common ground with those in Trump's orbit.

He held meetings with former Trump officials such as Mike Pompeo, who served as secretary of state and CIA director, and Robert C. O'Brien, who was Trump's last national security adviser. And he has struck up a relationship with Senator JD Vance, an Ohio Republican and enthusiastic Trump convert.

Vance's best-selling memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” he said, has parallels to his own story growing up with a single mother and an absent alcoholic father in Tottenham, where race riots roiled the streets. Mr. Lammy, whose memoir is titled “Out of the Ashes,” said Mr. Vance’s book “reduced me to tears.”

“I said to JD: 'Look, we have different politics, but we're both quite strong Christians and we both share quite tough upbringings,'” said Lammy, who would be Britain's second black foreign secretary after James Cleverly, a conservative.

The challenge for Lammy is that he shares more with Obama, who was a few years ahead of him at Harvard. The two men, who met 20 years ago at a gathering for black alumni, had dinner when Obama visited London last month. In Obama's Washington office hangs a portrait of the former president by Lammy's wife, Nicola Green, an artist who chronicled his 2008 campaign.

One of Obama's former advisers, Benjamin J. Rhodes, introduced Lammy to other Democratic lawmakers and also became his friend. In the case of a Labor government and a second Biden administration, he predicted, “we would see much more aligned relations between the US and the UK”.

But Rhodes said Lammy's gregarious manner and pragmatic politics would at least give him a fighting chance with the Trump administration. “I think he believes that through force of personality, he could develop relationships in that circle,” Mr. Rhodes said.

For now, Mr Lammy is determined not to offend. Asked about Trump's recent statement that he would tell the Russians to do “whatever the hell they want” to any NATO member who doesn't pay its fair share of the alliance's costs, Lammy caught the reference to burden sharing.

“Is Donald Trump right?” He said. “100 percent.”

Too many NATO countries, Lammy said, have still failed to meet the alliance's target of military spending equal to 2% of gross domestic product (Britain spends about 2.2%). The Labor Party has promised to increase this to 2.5%, and Lammy accused the Conservatives of reducing Britain's armed forces to a size they had not seen since Napoleonic times.

“I recognize in Donald Trump the ability to use language to concentrate minds,” he said.

Other Labor veterans are under no illusions about the chemistry between a Labor government and Trump. The former president clashed with Theresa May, a Conservative prime minister, even though she had better relations with Boris Johnson, and praised the current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, for trying to water down Britain's climate goals. Cameron, years before visiting Mar-a-Lago, had called Trump's threat to ban Muslims from entering the United States “divisive, stupid and wrong.”

“A Trump government would be very difficult for a Labor government, but it would also be difficult for a Rishi Sunak government,” said Jonathan Powell, chief of staff to Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Considering the risk of a turbulent period in transatlantic relations, Lammy is emphasizing Britain's neighbourhood. In a new essay in the journal Foreign Affairs in which he outlines a foreign policy based on what he calls “progressive realism”, he said Britain must focus on rebuilding its security ties with the European Union, which have weakened in the aftermath of Brexit.

Repairing relations with Europe, Lammy said, is necessary regardless of whether Biden or Trump wins in November, because the United States is increasingly concerned about its rivalry with China.

“For this reason, the UK must play its part here in Europe,” Lammy said, adding that Labor was better placed than the Conservatives to rebuild trust because of European suspicion of Brexit supporters such as Johnson. “Europe wants to turn the page. The US wants the UK to turn over a new leaf.”

Even as their strategic priorities diverge, the United States and Britain remain tied together in conflict zones such as the Middle East. British and American warplanes jointly helped repel the Iranian air assault on Israel.

Britain's position on the Israel-Gaza war mirrors that of the United States, and the Labor Party has remained largely sympathetic to the Conservatives, despite pressure from its left wing to take a harder line on Israel. Lammy described conditions in Gaza as “hell on earth” but did not call on Britain to suspend arms sales to Israel, as legal experts and some members of Parliament have done.

Although Lammy said he was “very concerned” that Israel might violate international law, which could trigger a suspension of arms exports, he did not want to prejudge the judgment of government lawyers.

“I'm also very aware that myself and Keir Starmer could become office holders” in the coming weeks, Lammy said, referring to speculation that if the Conservatives suffer terrible losses in local elections in early May, Sunak could call a general election.

As he contemplated this possibility, Lammy's thoughts returned to the United States, where he argued that the struggles of civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the election of Obama symbolized a turn in the moral arc toward racial justice that also transformed Britain.

“If I have the privilege of becoming Foreign Minister,” he said, “I am well aware that I will be the first – I am almost moved as I say this – the first Foreign Minister descended from enslaved peoples.”

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