British Prime Minister Theresa May goes to Washington this week. She could hardly be more different from the president whom she hopes to charm and who reportedly calls her “my Maggie”, after Margaret Thatcher. In the best traditions of the British Foreign Office, May will be briefed up to the eyeballs about her interlocutor, about what can be discerned of his policies and what she should try to extract from him. Trump may or may not receive a briefing on her.
As the Wall Street Journal notes, the two leaders hold diametrically opposed views on globalisation and trade, the president seeking economic self-sufficiency for his country, and the prime minister wishing to project the UK into the globe. A New York Times columnist described May’s view of a “Global Britain” as “baloney”.
It seems, then, that not so much a valued ally as a beggar is coming to Washington – a leader isolated in Europe, seeking a deal from another who has written the continent off. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher had a relationship in which he was the stronger and she the tougher; both, it seemed, needed each other, if only psychologically. The possibility for such chemistry between the billionaire and the vicar’s daughter seems remote.
But let’s assume that May, at least, has thought this through and is prepared to deploy her strengths. What would they be?
The first and best would be NATO. The president has called it “obsolete”, and has raised fears that he may pull out of it. No one can say if his criticism of the alliance is serious, or a series of off–the-cuff remarks which will be as comprehensively renounced as his contempt for the CIA was, earlier this week, transformed into“love”. May will strive to ensure it is the latter.
Britain was the progenitor of NATO through the towering figure of Ernest Bevin, foreign secretary in the postwar Labour government: after the United States (a long way after) it is its largest component. Its armed forces are configured with NATO membership as their guide. Its strategy, war games and training are within the context of NATO. The same is largely true of the other European states, including some – like the Scandinavian countries – that have very small militaries. If NATO collapses, they will be faced with creating a European Defence Force – often tabled, never pursued, and, given the European Union’s still limping economy, now is a bad time to try.
May could use this to her advantage. Britain could claim the position of a bridge between the EU and the United States, persuading Trump that his country’s security and that of the world is better with than without NATO. May could tell the other European countries that they had better increase their military budget to the 2 percent of GDP all have promised but few have delivered, or they will be faced with the larger headache of creating an entirely new force and new strategy.
The proposal could be further enhanced by the appointment of former Prime Minister David Cameron as NATO Secretary General, a possibility already mooted. Cameron is not liked in the EU, for holding a referendum which has plunged the member states into crisis. But if he is the link which binds the western alliance together, he might be acceptable.
Her other large card is Britain’s friendship. Much mocked by those who forecast, or wish, her failure, Trump should not dismiss it. May is a reluctant Brexiteer – she voted Remain, though with no obvious enthusiasm – but the referendum has made her a determined one: no other ally takes that position, which puts her on Trump’s side. Yet as it would be folly to destroy NATO, so it would be foolish to will the EU’s collapse, for both trade and security reasons. Britain has every good reason to bring the White House round to at least a grudging recognition of the benefits of a continued alliance: if Trump really does want to see May as “his Maggie”, he might accept the advice from her which he would scorn from any other European leader.
It is clear that Trump wishes to be amiable: the man nominated as ambassador to the UK, Professor Ted Malloch, has said the UK will get a trade deal within 12 months. In a BBC interview this week, he said the negotiations would take no more than three months.
Britain has ensured, by the referendum vote, that it has no choice but to get closer to a United States whose chief executive seems to wish to tell the rest of the world to get lost. Yet the process of turning a campaign’s worth of tweets into policy is, to say it at its kindest, clearly fluid. That may give the prime minister her opening.
With the returned bust of Churchill at her back, May is about the only world leader whom the president might accept as a frank friend and whose advice he might follow – and for whom he has already constructed a little play, Maggie to his Ronnie. It is a big role for the industrious daughter of a vicarage: but if she can succeed in modifying America First with Britain Second, she will do herself, Europe and the United States a service.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics and Journalism in an Age of Terror, which will be published this month by I. B. Tauris. He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.