News & Opinion

The Special Relationship

Can British PM Theresa May change Donald Trump—and secure a U.S. trade deal?

The Daily Beast

January 27, 2017

For many Britons, the notion of the “special relationship” with the United States was enshrined, at least symbolically, in those pictures of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher side by side (in friendship and ideology), and blissfully happy in each other’s company, on a golf cart.

Next came George W. Bush and Tony Blair in their Camp David casualwear, plotting their disastrous Iraq exploits.

It may be a while before Theresa May and Donald Trump get to the golf cart stage. No casualwear will be being swapped when the two leaders meet Friday, because—as May made clear addressing congressional Republicans in Philadelphia on Thursday afternoon—she does not share Blair’s liberal interventionist-style of foreign policymaking.

On the plane over to the U.S., to the queasiness of many on social media, May mused of her imminent encounter with Trump as “Opposites attract.”

Trump, known for waxing lyrical about Scotland—his mother was Scottish—has also encountered significant opposition to his business there. Many in Britain are disgusted that May will meet Trump on Friday, legitimizing a president who revolts them in many of his words and deeds, including members of May’s own team, as BBC presenter Andrew Marr pointed out on Sunday.

May has said she found Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” remarks “unacceptable.” She told Marr: “Whenever there is something that I find unacceptable, I won’t be afraid to say that to Donald Trump.”

May, like Trump, is presently embattled. She arrived in the U.S. following the victory of businesswoman Gina Miller at Britain’s Supreme Court, which ruled earlier this week that Parliament had to vote on whether the government can start the Brexit process.

In response, May—who had a few days before stated the terms for a “hard” Brexit—“submitted a terse, 132-word bill to lawmakers on Thursday,” as The New York Times put it.

The opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn—backing May, much to the anger of some of his colleagues—has ordered a three-line whip to vote for the bill.

With so much turmoil around Brexit and its consequences, May’s visit to the U.S. is a risky piece of political theater and brinkmanship.

She will meet Trump, fresh from her sure-footed Philadelphia speech, with business, trade deals, and economic visions beneficial to both nations in her mind.

Her speech raved long on the merits of the special relationship and its place and need to evolve.

Thatcher and Reagan were invoked throughout. May knew her audience, and which happy-place nerves to tap.

But May also made clear that the special relationship, for her, should be internationalist in aspiration. Both countries should take their place within NATO, she said—at a variance to Trump’s isolationist posturing.

She also sought to hammer home the difference between the terrorism of ISIS and the peaceful religion of Islam, and its millions of adherents who live in the United Kingdom and the United States. May drew the line between condemning a religion and condemning a poisonous, murderous ideology.

May and the British government are utterly opposed to the use of torture, where Trump appears not. As far as Russian President Vladimir Putin went, May’s advice was: “My advice is to engage but beware.”

While May cautioned that the era of Britain and America “intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over,” she added as a qualifier, “whether it is the security of Israel in the Middle East or Estonia in the Baltic states, we must always stand up for our friends and allies in democratic countries that find themselves in tough neighborhoods too.”

While she and Trump also differ on the merits of the Iran nuclear deal, the most resounding message of May’s speech was that Britain and America had a full part to play in the business of the world—two nations facing outward—with the complicating issue that Trump’s vision of “America First” appears to negate a more encompassing vision of its global purpose.

May’s trip has not only angered its British critics in terms of sheer symbolism—especially on the same day as Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto canceled his own meeting with Trump—but also, a future trade deal she is envisioning with the U.S. would mean, as the Independent put it, leaving “the door open for the greater involvement of US corporations in British healthcare.”

The National Health Service (NHS) is one of the most treasured of British institutions, and a total anathema to Americans. It is free at the point of use.

It is Obamacare on steroids—its structure and mission guaranteed to give Trump and his acolytes a fatal collective apoplexy. It is paid, like the British education system, from British people’s taxes.

It is treasured, and far from perfect, and its various crises—medics and nurses’ strikes, controversies over underfunding, and the creeping forces of privatization stalking it—stir vigorous argument and debate in Britain, whichever party is in power.

But its core mission of delivering free health care to all remains, whichever party holds sway in the Parliament.

Britain’s ruling Conservative Party is seen by its opponents as the least committed to the NHS’s safety, and May’s critics claimed on Thursday that she appeared all too ready to sell Britain out to America.

However, a No. 10 spokesman said: “The NHS will never be part of a trade deal and will always remain free at the point of delivery.”

There is no doubt the British prime minister is desperate to secure a trade deal, which Trump said he would personally broker on the American side. But what is the fruitful meeting point of Trump’s protectionism and May’s more open, free trade vision?

May had more red meat for her Republican spectators in Philadelphia: lavishing praise on them and Trump for their election victory (while at home, many Britons, and many in her own party, are disgusted by Trump), and boasting of Britain’s commitment to military spending.

But she also boasted of the countries where British troops were engaged in the business of peacekeeping, and of Britain and America not being “passive bystanders.”

Imagine Trump delivering a speech like that. Indeed, imagine tonally Trump delivering a speech like May’s. It was quotidian and precise, with a few rhetorical flourishes, but denuded of ideological passion and animus. It was, as she hopes the journey itself to be, just business.

Their meeting will be a fascinating contrast of personalities, of passions held but in check (May) and passions held and vigorously stirred (Trump). What they share, as May’s speech laid out, is a desire to make money—and that nerve she hit as often as she could.

If the “special relationship” still exists, it feels more transactional than emotional now, despite May’s vision of the countries swapping business and talent, and fostering long-held bonds of family and friendship.

May invoked the words of Winston Churchill more than once in Philadelphia on Thursday. He, of course, is most famous as a prime minister in a time of war. For all the talk of Britain and America being each other’s best trading and ideological buddies, May’s stirring words could not disguise the anxiety that Trump’s election has brought not only to the U.S., but also to the rest of the world.

May’s United Nations vision might sound righteous, but as she spoke on Thursday, The Daily Beast revealed the existence of a draft executive order from the Trump administration ordering the federal government to stop funding any United Nations organization that promotes “the performance of abortion or sterilization as a method of family planning.”

Trump’s habit of alienating countries, his innate antagonism, is at a sharp variance to Britain and May’s vision of cooperation, especially as the U.K. heads into the unknown of Brexit, and what its financial and cultural implications will be.

May has come to the U.S. to do business, or play the symbolic politics to show the importance of doing business.

A trade deal with the U.S. would be good for her, and she hopes, show to the rest of Europe how effective Britain can negotiate wearing its independent shoes.

It wasn’t the vision of “American carnage” that Trump invoked at his inauguration speech—widely criticized by commentators, but liked by the public—but May ended her call to a renewed special relationship by quoting Theodore Roosevelt at his most visceral. He said, in full, “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

May believes America and Britain can be those both swaggering and noble global leaders. But both May and Trump are hobbled by significant swathes of their populations—as revealed in Britain’s Brexit vote, and America’s popular vote—not believing in them or their national visions.

May is a more temperate leader. Her instincts, words, and tone could not be more different from Trump. But the battles they are choosing—Europe for May; take your pick with Trump—could affect their countries hugely detrimentally. Right now, May seems to need more from Trump than Trump needs from May, except the symbolic seal of legitimacy that her visit confers upon him.

What they fundamentally disagree on, and the negatives for May coming to the United States in terms of her own standing, may affect how she approaches Trump on Friday.

How pivotal May elects to make issues like America’s all-or-nothing place within NATO, and its place on the international stage, may affect whatever deal is or isn’t cut between the two nations.

This is brinkmanship, with many a queasy British voter looking on. Never mind the golf cart, and glowing words of trans-Atlantic friendship. Nervous voters will be looking to two nervously positioned leaders as they stumble toward signing on a still-to-be-negotiated dotted line.