by Kate Burrows-Jones; World Media North America Editor
As first dates go, the first formal get-together between British Prime Minister Theresa May and newly elected US President Donald Trump wasn’t bad. But if Ms. May is to turn this into Thatcher-Reagan redux, and partner with Mr. Trump to produce the legacy-defining accomplishments for her premiership that she seeks, she may need a little dating advice.
After a highly successful speech in Philadelphia addressing the Republican members of congress at their annual retreat, the Prime Minister ought to have had something to smile about. However, her ambitious plans to carve out a bold new free-trade agreement with the United States were never mentioned at the joint press conference she held with President Trump on Friday. A trade agreement will be hammered out, but it will be complicated. That’s okay, this was only the Special Relationship’s first date.
A UK-US trade deal makes sense for Britain, for whom the United States is already an enormously important trading partner. Even in the absence of an existing trade agreement, the UK exports more to the US than it does to any other single nation, and imports to the UK from the US make up the second largest total behind Germany.
“The President and I have mentioned future economic cooperation and trade. Trade between our two countries is already worth over 150 billion pounds a year. The US is the single biggest source of inward investment to the UK and together we have around a trillion invested in each other’s economies,” noted May.
Importantly, an invitation for a formal state visit was made. President Trump and his wife Melania will come to the UK as guest of H M The Queen later in the year. A new President’s maiden overseas trip is typically to close neighbors — either Mexico or Canada. However, given Trump’s lack of compulsion to follow convention, combined with the somewhat tense relationships between Trump and the respective leaders of Mexico and Canada — Enrique Pena Nieto and Justin Trudeau — it’s not a given that either Mexico or Canada will necessarily be the destination for Trump’s first overseas visit. During his campaign, Trump branded Trudeau “Canada’s worst president yet.” The possibility exists, therefore, for Ms. May to achieve something of a coup, in the event this visit were Trump’s first overseas state visit.
While the relationship between Britain and the United States remains special, the relationship between the two countries’ leaders will take time to develop. May and Trump are not a pair anyone would bet on to go out on a date, do a business deal, or make friends. Stylistically, Theresa May is a career politician with a keen intellect and an effective rhetorical style honed in many verbal jousts in Parliament. Mr Trump, meanwhile, has no interest in flowery language or rhetoric; he is plain-spoken, direct, unpolished. At times he uses an unusual syntax, qualifying his statements as he goes along and producing bad headlines for himself in the process. He’s punchy, like a verbal street brawler. At his first press conference as President-elect, when a reporter repeatedly shouted out, Trump bellowed back, “You are fake news.”
The two leaders’ efforts to emphasize the warmth, closeness and ‘specialness’ of the special relationship were at times cringe worthy.
When they entered the joint press conference, they stood a few minutes longer than the normal photocall, by the bust of Sir Winston Churchill — controversially removed from the White House by former President Obama. Mr. Trump made a point of ensuring that the symbolic image of the British wartime prime minister l would be photographed for the American audience, a conspicuous attempt to signal the new administration’s move away from the Obama worldview.
Warm exchanges were made, praise of the special relationship offered, the historic ties the countries have shared acknowledged. President Trump beamed at Ms. May as she complimented him on his election. He spoke of his mother’s birth in Scotland and how he was at his golf course when the outcome of the Brexit referendum was announced, heaping praise on the decision to leave the EU. “The special relationship between our two countries has been one of the great forces in history for justice and peace, and by the way my mother was born in Scotland, Stornoway, which is serious Scotland.” Perhaps it’s best not to give the President Nicola Sturgeon’s number.
Prime Minister May recounted some of their discussion points: defeating ISIL, Syria, Russia, NATO, and future economic trade. Although trade was ostensibly the most high profile topic going into the meeting, the leaders in fact hashed out a clearer plan on dealing with ISIL than they did on trade. This is the art of the deal for Mr Trump.
On ISIL, a relationship with Prime Minister May is key to Mr Trump achieving a campaign promise: defeating ISIL is on the top of the President’s to-do list.
The Prime Minister announced, “We are discussing how we can work even more closely together in order to take on and defeat Daesh and the ideology of Islamist extremism wherever it’s found. Our two nations are already leading efforts to face up to this challenge, and we’re making progress with Daesh losing territory and fighters, but we need to redouble our efforts.”
“And today, we’re discussing how we can do this by deepening intelligence and security cooperation and critically by stepping up our efforts to counter Daesh in cyberspace because we know we will not eradicate this threat until we defeat the ideology that lies behind it.”
No two countries are better equipped to share intelligence than the US and Britain. A concrete bond here would be hugely helpful to both, and would create a wedge between them and Europe — leverage for May in negotiations with the EU. The EU, which desperately needs the UK’s intelligence-sharing, in Trump’s view is taking major security risks with its continued commitment to mass waves of unknown migrants.
Commitment to a trade deal was what May came for and she got it, “so we are discussing how we can establish a trade negotiation agreement, take forward immediate high-level talks, lay the groundwork for a UK-US trade agreement and identify the practical steps we can take now in order to enable companies in both countries to trade and do business with one another more easily.”
It wasn’t all holding hands around the campfire, however (although there was apparently some hand-holding of one sort or another). No doubt in an attempt to appear strong at home — an equal — Mrs. May brought with her a message from Europe of the importance of NATO. While Mr Trump may seem to have acceded to her view on this, that was not the case. It was old news for Trump. He had already decided that NATO, who he had many times labeled obsolete (based on his perception that the organisation is not focused on modern threats, such as cyber warfare and non-state actors), was worth keeping. Mr Trump’s other problem with NATO is that he sees other countries freeloading on America’s generosity in providing security. Last year Mr Trump told Bloomberg TV: “We’re the ones always fighting; we’re the ones putting up a lot of money for NATO, disproportionately. A lot.” Not clear whose idea it was, but President Trump “ 100 per cent commitment to NATO”, was declared by the Prime MInister, with a nod of approval from her host; perhaps to strengthen her hand in dealing with the European on security issues.
Mr. Trump had already publicly deferred on NATO (as well as on enhanced interrogation) to the views of his Defence Secretary, James Mattis, who had carried the message of a commitment to NATO to Germany on Thursday. May can carry back Trump’s message that if they don’t want America’s interest in NATO to weaken, then Europe should pay up. “I’ve agreed to continue my efforts to encourage my fellow European leaders to deliver on their commitments to spend two percent of their GDP on defence so that the burden is more fairly shared. It’s only by investing properly in our defence that we can ensure we’re properly equipped to face our shared challenges together.”
Similarly, Trump may not appreciate May’s lecture on Russia. Trump has been repeatedly told in the United States that Russia is the bad guy, yet the Dealmaker-in-Chief sees Russia as the only one making a difference in Syria, an ally against terrorism, and the strongest player on the world stage. He also knows that during 8 years of the Obama administration Russia flouted the nuclear non-proliferation agreements it made with the US. While Obama destroyed plutonium as agreed, Russia enriched it. He seems to view this as Obama’s weakness based on his general view of his predecessor as a “…weak president that kisses everybody’s ass is in more wars than I’ve ever seen!….Nobody respects us…Can I do worse?”
He wants to partner with Russia to defeat ISIL — and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, should he stay or should he go, has never been part of Trump’s stated portfolio of concerns. We don’t know where he stands on the Ukraine, but it is also not an item he has talked about. Trump has said that he is prepared to review Obama’s sanctions put in place in 2014 over Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Trump may not care about Ukraine.
The Prime Minister talked of her support of the Minsk agreement: “We have, as far as the UK is concerned on sanctions for Russia in relation to their activities in the Ukraine, we have been very clear that we want to see the Minsk Agreement fully implemented. We believe the sanctions should continue until we see that Minsk Agreement fully implemented and we’ve been continuing to argue that inside the European Union.” One quickly notices that the US President makes no corresponding commitment.
Some advice to the Prime Minister. She brought a message on NATO and one on the Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Being the de facto Ambassador to Europe and pressing its messages and policy with the US administration may feel good and seem right, but Trump won’t care so much for it. He has an instinct about Europe as the sort of institution that usurps freedom and is full of liberal, know-better elitism — a globalist paradise. Trump certainly has shown disinterest in the grand transatlantic union of his predecessor, President Obama. If Ms May takes the role of Europe’s Ambassador to the US, she will become the tool of the President, not the equal ally she wants to be.
Today, President Trump spoke to the leaders of Japan, Germany, Russia , France and Australia. He spent 45 minutes chatting with the German leader Chancellor Angela Merkel, who he once called “Catastrophic” for allowing migrants to enter her country. He did not invite her to lunch, but said they would meet soon in DC. She invited him to the the Group of Seven (formerly G8) G7 in July which will be held in Germany.
Chief Strategist and Senior counselor to the President, Steve Bannon was in the room for Mr Trump’s call with President Putin. There was no one from the State Department, but Congress has not yet confirmed Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State.
The White House was slow to give a readout of the call, but the Kremlin said that the President Putin and Mr Trump agreed to meet one another and work out where and when. Putin reminded Mr Trump that the two nations were once allies in two wars and that he considers the US a partner in the fight against international terrorism, which they discussed. They talked about cooperation between Russia and the United States on the Middle East, the Arab-Israeli conflict, non-proliferation, stability, the Iranian nuclear program, and the Korean peninsula. They talked about the Ukraine. No attribution was given to the comments in the Kremlin’s readout report stressing restoration of trade and economic ties to stimulate business and bilateral relations (presumably lifting sanctions.) They agreed to maintain regular contact.
Trump and Putin may keep everyone guessing for a while. The world order is getting a shake-up. For the US and UK nothing is written yet, the relationship was warm enough, but not special enough. Reagan and Thatcher had their moments too. It was a very friendly exchange. At times they bonded while in other moments it seemed forced. Some objectives were reached, but it fell short of a hard, fast deal. That seems okay if Trump listens to advice and the deal is made below them. It may be an uneasy relationship for the articulate, sharp-edged May and Trump, the bombastic deal maker — but for the UK being at the front of the queue is better than being at the back.